Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 4, 2010

Science! Space! Drama!

As I always say, on the good days, I have the best job at my company. Last week I had one of those days.

You may recall that a few years ago, the Hubble Space Telescope stopped sending pictures due to a catastrophic failure of its main camera. A complex repair mission brought the camera and the Telescope back into service. As it happens, some of my colleagues who work at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland had a hand in making that happen. Last week I had the pleasure of meeting these scientists, and interviewed them for a video program.

The Hubble Telescope is a massive instrument, representing an enormous investment. Because it was intended to operate in orbit for many years, it was designed to be enhanced by emerging technologies, and a series of “Service Missions” were scheduled to perform both routine maintenance as well as upgrades, allowing for the expectation that new technology would evolve during the lifetime of the Telescope that would enhance its capabilities. At the time of the camera failure, the fourth of those scheduled missions was just 8 months away.

When the camera failed, then, the NASA team including scientists from NASA and many contracting companies, including my employer, had 8 months to design, develop, test and put the solution onto the Service Mission shuttle launch. One minor obstacle was that initial estimates put the time required to do this work at 2 years.

A team of technologists and scientists from NASA and many companies who support NASA came up with a solution involving a new set of hardware that could programmed in a rapid development to replace the older chips on the telescope that had failed. These had to be designed, built and tested at the same time that the software was being developed. And, the physical act of installing this “package” had to be planned and rehearsed by the astronauts who would do the upgrade on spacewalks.

The result? The Hubble is back in operation, with a new set of computer chips, and it is likely now to operate for a number of years before it is “de-orbited,” that is, brought down slowly to splash into the ocean and be recovered. It will eventually be replaced by the new James Webb Telescope, which will operate even farther in space than the Hubble’s 340-mile orbit above earth.

This year, the Hubble Space Telescope celebrates its 20th year. I had a great time meeting some real-life space scientists who make it tick.

Note the addition in the right-hand column of a few links to other blogs you might find interesting, because I know these writers!

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