Space eye: Hubble trouble continues as Webb telescope moves ahead

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Al Jazeera English 07 July, 2021 - 07:54am 60 views

That’s good news for the United States’ space agency, which has spent the last several weeks trying to troubleshoot issues with its current window on the universe, the Hubble Space Telescope.

The storied telescope that has revolutionised our understanding of the cosmos for more than three decades is experiencing a technical glitch. According to NASA, the Hubble Space Telescope’s payload computer, which operates the spacecraft’s scientific instruments, went down suddenly on June 13.

“It’s just the difficulty of trying to fix something orbiting 400 miles [653 kilometres] over your head instead of in your laboratory,” Paul Hertz, the director of astrophysics for NASA, told Al Jazeera.

“If this computer were in the lab, it would be really quick to diagnose it,” he explained. “All we can do is send a command, see what data comes out of the computer, and then send that data down and try to analyse it.”

When Hubble launched on April 24, 1990, scientists were excited to peer into the vast expanse of space with a new set of “eyes”, but they had no idea how much one telescope would change our understanding of the universe.

The telescope has looked into the far reaches of space, spying the most distant galaxy ever observed — one that formed just 400 million years after the big bang.

Captured in one single photograph are hundreds of thousands of ancient galaxies that formed long before the Earth even existed — each galaxy a vast and thriving stellar hub, where hundreds of billions of stars were born, lived their lives, and died.

The light from these galaxies has taken billions of years to reach Hubble’s sensors, making it a time machine of sorts – one that takes us on a journey through time to see them as they were billions of years ago.

Hubble has also spied on our cosmic neighbours, discovering some of the moons around Pluto.

Its observations showed us that almost every galaxy has a supermassive back hole at its centre, and Hubble has also helped scientists create a vast three-dimensional map of an elusive, invisible form of matter that accounts for most of the matter in the universe.

Called dark matter, the enigmatic substance can’t be seen. Scientists only know it exists by measuring its effects on ordinary matter. Thanks to Hubble’s suite of scientific instruments, scientists were able to create a 3D map of dark matter.

Scientists have been planning for Hubble’s inevitable demise for quite some time. Over the past 31 years, the telescope has seen its fair share of turmoil.

Shortly after it launched, NASA discovered that something wasn’t quite right: Hubble’s primary mirror was flawed. Fortunately, the problem could be fixed, as the telescope is the only one in NASA’s history that was designed to be serviced by astronauts.

When the space shuttle retired in 2011, it meant that Hubble would be on its own. If the telescope were in trouble, ground controllers would need to troubleshoot remotely.

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

Just after 4pm EDT (20:00 GMT), an issue with the observatory’s payload computer popped up, putting the telescope and its scientific instruments into safe mode.

Hubble has two payload computers on board — the main computer and a backup for redundancy. These computers, called a NASA Standard Spacecraft Computer-1 (or NSSC-1), were installed during one of the telescope’s servicing missions in 2009; however, they were built in the 1980s.

They’re part of the Science Instrument Command and Data Handling (SI C&DH) unit, a module on the Hubble Space Telescope that communicates with the telescope’s science instruments and formats data for transmission to the ground. It also contains four memory modules (one primary and three backups).

The current unit is a replacement that was installed by astronauts on shuttle mission STS-125 in May 2009 after the original unit failed in 2008.

When the main computer went down in June, NASA tried to activate its backup, but both computers are experiencing the same glitch, which suggests the real issue is in another part of the telescope.

Currently, the team is looking at the various components of the SI C&DH, including the power regulator and the data formatting unit. If one of those pieces is the problem, then engineers may have to perform a more complicated series of commands to switch to backups of those parts.

The operations team will need several days to see how the backup computer performs before it can resume normal operations. The backup hasn’t been used since its installation in 2009, but according to NASA, it was “thoroughly tested on the ground prior to installation on the spacecraft”.

Part of the trouble with Hubble is that the observatory was designed to be serviced directly. Without a space shuttle, there’s just no way to do so.

“The biggest difference between past issues and this one is there’s no way to replace parts now,” John Grunsfeld, a former NASA astronaut, told Al Jazeera.

But, he added, “The team working on Hubble are masters of engineering. I”m confident they will succeed.”

The James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in November, is expected to expand upon Hubble’s legacy. The massive telescope, essentially a giant piece of space origami, will unfold its shiny golden mirrors and peer even further into the universe than Hubble ever could. Its infrared sensors will let scientists study stellar nurseries, the heart of galaxies and much more.

#Webb moves a big step closer to launch!!! 🚀🛰️🔭

Webb has just successfully passed its "Final Mission Analysis Review", moving it closer to seeing farther!

Find out more: 👇👇👇https://t.co/NiVRXHFQ0G #WebbSeesFarther #WebbFliesAriane #ExploreFarther @esa @nasa @csa_asc pic.twitter.com/pOrnlqfI7J

— ESA Webb Telescope (@ESA_Webb) July 1, 2021

Hubble has shown us that nearly all galaxies have supermassive black holes at their centres, the brightest of which we call quasars. These incredibly bright objects can tell us a lot about galaxy evolution, as the jets and wind produced by a quasar help to shape its host galaxy.

Previous observations have shown that there is a correlation between the masses of supermassive black holes and the masses of their galaxies, meaning that quasars could help regulate star formation in their host galaxy.

“By studying their galaxies, we can see what the impact of such extreme black holes is on the early formation of stars in these galaxies.”

Through Hubble’s eyes, scientists cannot detect individual stars in the galaxies with these ultra-bright quasars, but with Webb, scientists hope they will be able to see not only individual stars, but also the gas from which these stars form.

That means the Webb telescope has the potential to truly revolutionise our understanding of galaxy formation and evolution, the same way that Hubble did for our knowledge of the universe over the past three decades.

It was the first US splashdown in darkness since Apollo 8’s crew returned from the moon in 1968.

The first-ever all-civilian mission to space is sponsored by Jared Isaacman and is set to take flight this fall.

Phenomenon occurs when a total lunar eclipse coincides with the moon being at its closest point to Earth.

Read full article at Al Jazeera English

What is consciousness like for other animals and when did it evolve?

New Scientist 07 July, 2021 - 11:09am

Children know the fun of throwing a ball into the sea, only to watch the waves fling it back. Jennifer Mather and Roland Anderson at the Seattle Aquarium were surprised to find octopuses playing similar games. Their toy was a floating pill bottle, which they were free to ignore or explore as they wished. Six of the aquarium’s octopuses soon lost interest, but two showed childlike curiosity, pushing it with their arms or shooting jets of water to move it against the tank’s current. It is hard to interpret this as anything other than play, which many researchers argue requires some form of conscious awareness.

Many animals exhibit behaviours similarly suggestive of an inner life. Conscious creatures may include our primate cousins, cetaceans and corvids – and potentially many invertebrates, including bees, spiders and cephalopods such as octopuses, cuttlefish and squid. The challenge, of course, is to understand how the inner lives of these creatures differ from our own.

In the past, scientists spoke about “levels of consciousness”, as if there were a hierarchy with humans on top. But in a paper published in 2020, Jonathan Birch, a philosopher at the London School of Economics and his colleagues argue that we would …

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The Hubble Space Telescope is facing its most serious glitch in a decade and NASA really wants to fix it

Space.com 07 July, 2021 - 10:00am

But it isn't the sort of fix that should be rushed.

"Other than the fact that this particular anomaly means the observatory can't work until we solve it, I don't think solving it is different in kind than other anomalies that NASA deals with," Paul Hertz, NASA's director of astrophysics, told Space.com in an interview.

Troubleshooting spacecraft anomalies is always a little tricky, Hertz noted, since engineers can't see or touch the systems and have minimal data about what's happening.

"It's always a bit of a detective exercise to try to use the clues that we have and understand the hardware and what it can and can't do and try to figure out what hypothesized problem could have yielded the data that we see," Hertz said. "The typical way that one troubleshoots an anomaly is you think about all the things that could have gone wrong, you try to order them in order of likeliness, and then you work your way down the list."

Now, the fishbone seems to be pointing instead to adjacent systems that interact with the computer, managing its data and power supply. Checking these systems is riskier and more difficult, Hertz said: The engineers must work with more pieces of the system than they have on previous tests, and they must include the spacecraft itself, rather than only the computer.

"To swap them out and swap in the redundant components on the other side would require commanding of the spacecraft, which is riskier because if you do something wrong, you'll leave the spacecraft in an undesirable condition," Hertz said.

Because of the risks involved in the next procedures, NASA has slowed down the troubleshooting process. "We're very deliberately not putting any time pressure on the team," Hertz said. "I told them that the goal is to safely recover Hubble science operations, not to do it quickly."

The team took a break for the long Fourth of July holiday weekend, he said, and is now back to work developing and analyzing procedures to switch to the backup modules of the data and power regulators on the spacecraft. Before any commands are sent to Hubble, the entire plan must be approved by an independent review board and a group of NASA managers, Hertz noted, given the possibility that a small error could put an end to Hubble's science for good.

"Parts in space don't fail on schedule, it's a random thing," he added. "It's been 12 years since we serviced Hubble and one thing finally failed. So simplistically, we're going to go another five, 10, 12 years before something else fails, and it'll probably be something which is still redundant and so that won't be the end of the mission then, either."

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NASA's James Webb Space Telescope passes key review ahead of fall launch

Space.com 07 July, 2021 - 06:10am

The launch will take place from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Mission teams are working toward a launch readiness date of Oct. 31, but liftoff is not expected to actually take place on Halloween.

"The precise launch date following 31 October depends on the spaceport’s launch schedule and will be finalized closer to the launch readiness date," ESA officials wrote in the same statement.

After launch, Webb will head to the Sun-Earth Lagrange Point 2, a gravitationally stable point in space about 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from our planet. The observatory, which features a 21.3-foot-wide (6.5 meters) primary mirror and a deployable sunshade the size of a tennis court, will then begin observing the cosmos in infrared light. It will study the universe's oldest stars and galaxies and hunt for signs of life in the atmospheres of alien planets, among many other tasks.

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