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Hubble instruments in safe mode, NASA taking steps to find out why

At 1:46 a.m., EDT, Oct. 23, Hubble’s science instruments issued error codes, indicating the loss of a specific synchronization message.

This message provides timing information the instruments use to correctly respond to data requests and commands. The mission team reset the instruments, resuming science operations the following morning.

At 2:38 a.m., EDT, Oct. 25, the science instruments again issued error codes indicating multiple losses of synchronization messages. As a result, the science instruments autonomously entered safe mode states as programmed.

NASA is continuing work to resolve the issue.

The Hubble team is focusing its efforts to isolate the problem on hardware that commands the instruments and is part of the Science Instrument Command and Data Handling Unit. Specifically, the team is analyzing the circuitry of the Control Unit, which generates synchronization messages and passes them onto the instruments.

While analyzing the Control Unit, the team is working to identify potential workarounds for the issue. These include possible changes to instrument flight software that could check for these lost messages and compensate for them without putting the instruments into safe mode. These workarounds would first be verified using ground simulators to ensure they work as planned.

Over the weekend of Oct. 30, the team prepared to turn on parts of the Near Infrared Camera and Multi Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) instrument to collect data on this issue, allowing the team to determine how frequently this problem occurs. Installed in 1997, NICMOS has been inactive since 2010, when the Wide Field Camera 3 became operational. NICMOS allowed the team to use an instrument to collect information on these lost messages while keeping the active instruments off as a safety precaution. Since NICMOS was recovered on Nov. 1, no additional synchronization messages have been lost.

The team is now taking steps to recover Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys instrument from safe mode and start collecting science with that instrument at the beginning of next week. The team will make the decision on Sunday after analyzing the latest data. If a lost message is seen before then, the decision to activate ACS will also be revisited. The team is proceeding cautiously to ensure the safety of the instruments and avoid additional stresses on the hardware. Therefore, only ACS will be used in this capacity next week. ACS was selected as the first instrument to recover as it faces the fewest complications should a lost message occur.

Over the next week, the team will continue analyzing the Control Unit design diagrams and data associated with the lost messages to determine what may have caused this problem. They will also be looking into potential instrument software changes that could help address it. Once the team better understands the frequency of the problem and has determined the time needed to implement possible software changes, they will discuss a plan for returning the other instruments to science operations.

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