NASA Struggles to Fix Failure of Hubble Space Telescope’s 1980s Computer

Hubble Space Telescope in Orbit

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched by the space shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990. Avoiding distortions of the atmosphere, Hubble has an unobstructed view peering to planets, stars, and galaxies, some more than 13.4 billion light-years away. Credit: NASA

NASA continues to work on resolving an issue with the payload computer on the Hubble Space Telescope. The operations team will be running tests and collecting more information on the system to further isolate the problem. The science instruments will remain in a safe mode state until the issue is resolved. The telescope itself and science instruments remain in good health.

The computer halted on Sunday, June 13. An attempt to restart the computer failed on Monday, June 14. Initial indications pointed to a degrading computer memory module as the source of the computer halt. When the operations team attempted to switch to a back-up memory module, however, the command to initiate the backup module failed to complete. Another attempt was conducted on both modules Thursday evening to obtain more diagnostic information while again trying to bring those memory modules online. However, those attempts were not successful.

The payload computer is a NASA Standard Spacecraft Computer-1 (NSSC-1) system built in the 1980s that is located on the Science Instrument Command and Data Handling unit. The computer’s purpose is to control and coordinate the science instruments and monitor them for health and safety purposes. It is fully redundant in that a second computer, along with its associated hardware, exists on orbit that can be switched over to in the event of a problem. Both computers can access and use any of four independent memory modules, which each contain 64K of Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) memory. The payload computer uses only one memory module operationally at a time, with the other three serving as backups.

Launched in 1990, Hubble has contributed greatly to our understanding of the universe over the past 30 years.

30 Comments on "NASA Struggles to Fix Failure of Hubble Space Telescope’s 1980s Computer"

  1. MicrosoftInSpace | June 19, 2021 at 4:30 pm | Reply

    Obviously one of the Microsoft updates??? The latest one screwed my desktop too!! But seriously I hope the guys can recover it. Massive loss to science without tools like this.

    • Clyde Spencer | June 19, 2021 at 6:40 pm | Reply

      The monthly, pushed Windows 10 updates have been a nightmare for me. I’ve had to retire 3 older printers that were still serviceable. There are a number of minor problems that are just inconveniences, so I live with them. I shut off updates on my laptop.

      There used to be a computer that was affectionately called a “Trash 80.” We now have a ‘Trash 10’ OS.

  2. I highly doubt that the computer is running windows. It would be either Windows 1.0 or 3.11. Both were horrid os’s.

  3. Your saying NASA didn’t install an upgrade dock.

  4. It’s time to give Hubble a break and finally get the James Webb telescope up there, folks, after how many delays?? Now it’s set for November of this year…yeah, right.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | June 20, 2021 at 1:49 am | Reply

      Different wavelength ranges, so different uses. FUSE, which blew its fuse 2007 [a reaction wheel too many crashed], is probably the most similar instrument (but see below).

      Hubble is unique.

      “How much longer will the Hubble Space Telescope last?
      The 31-year-old telescope has just gone into safe mode once again—a reminder that it’s likely on its last legs.
      by Neel V. Patel
      March 9, 2021″
      Update: on March 12, NASA announced Hubble had come out exited safe mode and was now operating normally once again.”

      “The JWST is often promoted as Hubble’s successor, but that isn’t quite right. Hubble can observe the universe in visible and ultraviolet wavelengths, while JWST’s focus is on infrared observations, which help us study early-universe objects and characterize the chemistry on other worlds. Being situated in space, Hubble doesn’t have to worry about inference caused by Earth’s atmosphere, which is especially detrimental to ultraviolet observations (the ozone layer blocks out most UV radiation).”

      “So what replaces Hubble when it’s finally ready to retire? Brown says other nations have nascent plans to put other missions in orbit that could take up the visible and UV investigations currently run by Hubble. India’s Astrosat space telescope currently does UV observations from space, but with a much smaller aperture. China is looking to launch a space telescope called Xuntian in 2024, and state media says it will observe an area of space 300 times larger than Hubble can.

      The true successor to Hubble might be NASA’s proposed Large Ultraviolet Optical Infrared Surveyor space telescope, or LUVOIR, a general-purpose observatory capable of observing in multiple wavelengths (including infrared, optical, and ultraviolet). But if funded, LUVOIR wouldn’t launch until 2039 at the earliest.

      It’s possible Hubble will stay on until it can be truly replaced, but most astronomers are bracing for a big knowledge gap when it finally stops working. “Hubble is really the premier game for doing ultraviolet and optical astronomy,” says Brown. “So much of astronomy, especially when it comes to understanding temperature and chemistry in outer space, hinges on the information you can really get from it. I fear the space community is really going to feel the loss when Hubble stops working.””

      [MIT Technology Review]

  5. It runs Mentor Graphics VRTX on 386 processors.

  6. Edward Francs | June 19, 2021 at 9:29 pm | Reply

    Pay SpaceX assemble a team to save it. A combination of robotics and manned systems can do the job. Needs two years to get it all done.

  7. Edward Francs | June 19, 2021 at 9:32 pm | Reply

    Better yet, build three more Hubbles with modern electronics and let SpaceX launch them.

  8. Give it to Musk. Government screws everything up.

    • “Government screws everything up” – wasn’t it the government that put the hubble up to begin with? hasn’t the hubble given many decades of fine service? 64k of 1980’s memory is going to degrade. don’t be such a trumper.

      • Kramer The Lamer | June 23, 2021 at 7:11 am | Reply

        You’re denser than a neutron star. Yes, government screws everything up. SLS? Or any other project for that matter are plagued by massive cost overruns fueled by Congressional allegiances (F35). Ever see how they build and test? Not at one location reasonably close to the launch site but at multiple sites across the US that burden the infrastructure to move such massive pieces, drive costs, risk the payloads, and waste lots of money. Ultimately sent by barge in a risky procedure to get the pieces to final location. Why SpaceX and Blue Origin build as close to the launch site as possible. The government could screw up a free lunch. Just because the government can do it doesn’t mean it should, like government run healthcare. The VA has proven time and again that the government can’t handle healthcare game.

        You ignorant, ill informed trumper. Stay under your rock kramer, no one said you could come out.

  9. Nothing like a little drama to send the old girl off. Viva la JWST

  10. The next modern space telescope is the James Webb, expected to launch later this year.

  11. Maybe a micro rock hit it? I sure dio love the images it made and hope it is refitted instead of letting it be another tale mark in history.

  12. Let SpaceX or whomever send a spare part capsule into orbit near Hubble. When a crew leaves the ISS, have them get close to Hubble and using the spare part capsule do some much needed repairs. This may take several repairs to complete the job but at least it will keep Hubble running. Or have NASA use the drone space shuttle that the Air Force has and do the job.

  13. @jimb … Of course it’s not running windows. Win 3.11 wasn’t around until after it launched. It, 3.0 and 1.0 weren’t even operating systems (they ran on top of DOS) Plus it’s two computers that can access the same memory modules, even win10 can’t do that.

  14. Steve Harkins | June 20, 2021 at 7:04 pm | Reply

    Bet Space X could send something up there to latch onto it, then ferry it over to ISS so it could be worked on.

  15. I have a TI-99 and Texas Instruments 99/4Afor sale if NASA needs some old parts. Contact me on ebay at CraigsPaper (ebay name: creeg1 ).

  16. what does “exists on orbit” mean?

  17. In this day and time we can fix this telescope it was designed to be serviced and an upgrade would change everything imagine the difference in cameras today vs the 80s.
    Just another contract.

  18. well, put a new computer in dear henry, dear henry.

    • Kramer The Lamer | June 23, 2021 at 7:19 am | Reply

      And how do you expect them to install the computer? Didn’t think it through, did ya. Typical for you, not thinking anything through. With STS retired there’s no realistic way to get to Hubble as it exists.

      This blind, ill informed, holier-than-thou, “I know better than the experts” mindset is the kind of ignorance that is ruining the country. Hell, you don’t even have to buy books any more to get informed, it’s all free information. Yet you choose to remain as blissfully ignorant as possible.

  19. Goodmorning Everyone 🙋‍♀️
    God knows the hidden secrets of secrets being hidden will reveal 1 day🙏

  20. Z Rentz-Bjorge | June 21, 2021 at 2:50 pm | Reply

    I’ve got a functional Commodore 64…. Maybe NASA would like to salvage memory chips from it. In all seriousness, I sure hope the money and resources are put into fixing or upgrading. Let’s not have another Arecibo tragedy.

  21. Sekar Vedaraman | June 22, 2021 at 12:13 am | Reply


    Future Diagnostic instruments and devices need to be in a safe environment in space and use all five gross senses converted into information streams,24×7 to observe the universe. Not just Sight , artificial or otherwise.

    These tools also need to be self-healing in terms of hardware and software they constitute. The sense of sight is just one view. Other senses in combination with the sense of sight may give more interesting data.

    However, the five gross senses related data may be insufficient to reveal the secrets of the gross universe, without the assistance of the sixth and higher senses.

    The ability to observe the universe without the use of senses , by gathering the data and then using mathematics aided by AI, to reach conclusions and draw Inferences
    and create a picture of distant objects, also needs to be strengthened going forward.

    Views expressed are personal and not binding on anyone.

  22. Space Cowboys 2.0

  23. I recall the Hubble repair was planned using an SLS demo flight. Any time soon! No, really. Stop making jokes

  24. Time for NASA to give ELON a call.

  25. Victor Emuan | July 6, 2021 at 2:56 am | Reply

    It has taken the Hubble 31yrs to get this far away from home, what if it were to be redirected home for possible total overhaul of all necessary softwares and hardwares! Will it still takes as much time to get back home? If it takes as direect a flight path as is spacely possible.
    Just imagine what potential a Hubble with today’s technologies onboard, both in material, softwares and hardwares innovations.

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