With NASA reporting technical issues with the Hubble Space Telescope's payload computer and starting procedures to switch to backup hardware, Professor Peter Wheatley from the Astronomy and Astrophysics Group in our Department of Physics comments on the importance of this 31 year old mission.
Professor Peter Wheatley said: "I'm actually very hopeful that the telescope can be fixed. The problem appears to be tricky, and it involves a complicated combination of 1980s computer technology, but there are back up systems on board that should be able to take over once the problem is diagnosed.
"It is clear, however, that Hubble is beginning to show its age, and we do need to be prepared for that fact that it won’t go on forever. That is going to be a painful shock, because for most of us Hubble has been operating throughout our careers and we have come to take it granted. While other space telescopes have come and gone, Hubble has been a constant presence.
"Apart perhaps from Galileo’s first use of a telescope for astronomy in 1609, Hubble has been the most important telescope in the history of astronomy. It’s ability to make pin-sharp images of nebulae and distant galaxies has been transformational. And being in space has also provided access to ultraviolet light from stars and galaxies that is blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere.
"Hubble is also designed to be a very versatile telescope, with lots of different cameras, and this has allowed it to stay relevant as new branches of astronomy have become more important. For instance, Hubble has made a major contribution to my own field, studying exoplanet atmospheres, even though the first exoplanet hadn’t even been discovered when Hubble was launched.
"Much of its versatility and longevity has come from the series of servicing missions carried out by NASA astronauts. These were extremely ambitious and challenging, and apart from the moon landings, I think these servicing missions have been the most impressive achievement of manned spaceflight."
2 July 2021
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