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NASA’s next big eye in the sky, the Golden Mirror James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) passed a critical review this week, bringing it one step closer to launching in November and observing new parts of the universe for scientists on Earth.

This is good news for NASA, which has been trying to resolve the issue of the Hubble Space Telescope, its current window of the universe, in the past few weeks.

For more than thirty years, this legendary telescope that has completely changed our understanding of the universe is experiencing technical failure. According to NASA, the payload computer of the Hubble Space Telescope, which operates the spacecraft’s scientific instruments, was suddenly shut down on June 13.

In the sky for more than 30 years, the Hubble Space Telescope has captured stunning images, such as one of the Messier 106 galaxies [File: STScI/AURA, R Gendler via AP]

Therefore, the equipment used to take photos and collect data on the ship is currently not working properly. The best and brightest people in the agency have been working hard to bring the aging telescope back online and conducted a series of tests, but still can’t seem to figure out what went wrong.

“It’s just trying to fix the difficulty of something that orbits 400 miles [653 million kilometres] Paul Hertz, director of astrophysics at NASA, told Al Jazeera.

“If this computer is in the laboratory, it will be diagnosed very quickly,” he explained. “All we can do is send commands, look at the data sent from the computer, and then send the data down and try to analyze it.”

Hubble’s legacy

When Hubble launched on April 24, 1990, scientists were excited to observe the vast space with a new set of “eyes”, but they didn’t know that a telescope would change our understanding of the universe.

The telescope has looked into the distant space, and has seen the most Distant galaxies once observed — Formed only 400 million years after the Big Bang.

This image taken with the Hubble Space Telescope shows a hot, star-bursting galaxy farther than any previously detected galaxy, when the universe was only 400 million years old. [File: Space Telescope Science Institute via AP]

Hubble has also made stunning snapshots of the Milky Way, such as Hubble Ultra Deep Field.

Hundreds of thousands of ancient galaxies that formed long before the existence of the earth are captured in one photo-each galaxy is a huge and prosperous center of stars, where hundreds of billions of stars are born, live and die.

It takes billions of years for the light from these galaxies to reach Hubble’s sensors, making it a kind of time machine-it can take us through time and space and see what they looked like billions of years ago.

Hubble also monitored our cosmic neighbors and discovered some moons around Pluto.

Its observations show that there is a supermassive black hole in the center of almost every galaxy. Hubble also helped scientists draw a huge three-dimensional map containing elusive and invisible matter that makes up most of the universe form.

This mysterious substance called dark matter is invisible. Scientists only know its existence by measuring its impact on ordinary substances.Thanks to Hubble’s scientific instrument suite, scientists were able to create 3D map of dark matter.

What went wrong

For some time, scientists have been preparing for the inevitable demise of Hubble. In the past 31 years, the telescope has experienced considerable turbulence.

Soon after launch, NASA discovered something was wrong: Hubble’s primary mirror was defective. This telescope is the only telescope in NASA history designed specifically for astronauts.

In December 1999, astronauts Steven L Smith and John M Grunsfeld provided services to the Hubble Space Telescope [File: NASA/JSC via AP]

Throughout its life cycle (and the agency’s space shuttle program), NASA’s astronaut team has repaired and upgraded Hubble and its instruments five times.

When the space shuttle was retired in 2011, it meant that Hubble would exist independently. If there is a problem with the telescope, the ground controller will need to troubleshoot the problem remotely.

So far, this has proven to be effective. That is, until June 13th.

Just after 4 pm Eastern Time (20:00 GMT), the observatory’s payload computer had a problem, putting the telescope and its scientific instruments in safe mode.

Hubble has two payload computers-the main computer and the redundant backup. These computers are called NASA Standard Spacecraft Computer-1 (or NSSC-1) and were installed during the telescope maintenance mission in 2009; however, they were built in the 1980s.

They are part of the scientific instrument command and data processing (SI C&DH) unit, which is a Module The Hubble Space Telescope communicates with the telescope’s scientific instruments and formats the data for transmission to the ground. It also contains four memory modules (one main memory and three spare memory).

The current device is a replacement device installed by astronauts in the space shuttle mission STS-125 in May 2009 after the original device failed in 2008.

When the main computer failed in June, NASA tried to activate its backup, but both computers encountered the same failure, which indicated that the real problem was in another part of the telescope.

Currently, the team is studying various components of SI C&DH, including power regulators and data formatting units. If there is a problem with one of the parts, the engineer may have to execute a series of more complex commands to switch to the backup of these parts.

This image taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows M66, the largest of the Leo triple galaxies [File: NASA, ESA/Hubble Collaboration via AP]

NASA stated that it will take some time to resolve the problem and switch to a backup system if necessary. This is because opening these backups is more risky than anything the team has tried so far.

It takes several days for the operations team to check the performance of the backup computer before it can resume normal operations. The backup has not been used since it was installed in 2009, but according to NASA, it was “thoroughly tested on the ground before being installed on the spacecraft.”

Part of the problem with Hubble is that the observatory is designed for direct maintenance. Without the space shuttle, there would be no way to do this.

“The biggest difference between the problem in the past and this problem is that there is no way to replace parts now,” former NASA astronaut John Glensfield told Al Jazeera.

However, he added: “The team working on Hubble is a master of engineering. I believe they will succeed.”

Look to the future

The James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to launch in November and is expected to inherit Hubble’s legacy. The huge telescope, essentially a huge piece of space origami, will unfold its shiny golden mirror to observe the universe more deeply than Hubble. Its infrared sensors will allow scientists to study the nurseries of stars, the hearts of galaxies and more.

Hubble showed us that almost all galaxies have supermassive black holes in their centers, the brightest of which we call quasars. These incredibly bright objects can tell us a lot about the evolution of galaxies, because the jets and winds produced by quasars help shape their host galaxies.

Previous observations have shown that there is a correlation between the mass of a supermassive black hole and the mass of its galaxy, which means that quasars can help regulate star formation in the host galaxy.

In August 2020, the Hubble Space Telescope took this photo of Jupiter and one of its moons Europa. On the left is the planet 653 million kilometers (406 million miles) from the Earth. [File: NASA/ESA via AP]

Chris Willott of the Canadian Space Agency told Al Jazeera: “We saw black holes in the universe only 800 million years ago, and their masses are almost the same as the largest we see today, so they have evolved. It’s very early.”

“By studying their galaxies, we can see how this extreme black hole affects the early formation of stars in these galaxies.”

Through Hubble’s eyes, scientists cannot detect individual stars in a galaxy with these superbright quasars, but with Weber, scientists hope they can see not only individual stars, but also the gas that forms them.

This means that the Webb Telescope may truly revolutionize our understanding of the formation and evolution of galaxies, just as Hubble has done with our knowledge of the universe in the past three decades.



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