Officials Cite Shortage of Decades-Old Spare Parts

NEW YORK — The fallout from a major glitch with the Hubble Space Telescope has again delayed NASA’s plans to send a space shuttle crew to overhaul the orbital observatory for the final time, with launch now set for no earlier than May 2009 due to problems with a spare part, the agency said late Thursday.

NASA was hoping to launch seven astronauts to Hubble aboard Shuttle Atlantis Oct. 14, but delayed the mission to February after a serious hardware failure prevented the space telescope from relaying the bulk of its images and data to Earth late last month.

But now the mission will fly no earlier than sometime next May after problems cropped up with a spare data handling component designed to restore Hubble to full strength.

“Our plan is to have it ready to ship to [Kennedy Space Center] in the April-ish timeframe so that it would support a May-ish type launch,” Hubble program manager Preston Burch of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., told reporters during a teleconference.

Top NASA officials said late Thursday that the Hubble delay will not impact plans to launch the next two shuttle missions to the international space station. They cleared Shuttle Endeavour for its planned Nov. 14 launch on a space station supply mission, with shuttle Discovery slated to launch to the orbiting lab in March 2009.

“There are really no constraints,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s space operations chief, in a separate mission briefing. “We’re pretty stable, so we can put Hubble in whenever it makes sense to put Hubble in.”

Every month Atlantis’ Hubble servicing mission is delayed adds an extra $10 million in operating costs, NASA officials have said. Commanded by veteran astronaut Scott Altman, Atlantis’ STS-125 Hubble servicing crew plans to fly an 11-day mission and stage five spacewalks to overhaul the space telescope for the fifth and final time.

Hubble glitch history

A vital data relay channel, Side A of Hubble’s Science Instrument Control and Data Handling system, failed Sept. 27, prompting the shuttle mission delay. The failure also sparked a weeks-long effort by engineers to switch to the backup channel, Side B, for the first time since Hubble was launched in April 1990.

After a few hiccups, that troubleshooting effort culminated in the release earlier today of Hubble’s first new image since the glitch: a portrait of an odd pair of galaxies called Arp 147.

“I’m very confident that the Side B system is going to continue to operate as it has been over the last several days,” Burch said. “Right now, the unit appears to be very stable.”

The activation of Side B allows Hubble to resume beaming home its iconic views of the universe, but also leaves the space telescope without another backup if it too should fail.

NASA delayed the launch of Atlantis toward Hubble to allow engineers more time to test a spare data handling system unit on Earth at the Goddard center. But by coincidence, the Side A channel of that device has also experienced glitches. Efforts to power it up yielded intermittent results.

“What we suspect is, there’s a workmanship or a parts problem on that unit that’s causing this glitch,” Burch said. “We do need to isolate the fault that’s causing this particular issue.”

Engineers are tracing the history of the decades-old spare part, which had been partially disassembled over the years and is now being patched back together. It would take at least a full year to build a completely new unit from scratch, mission managers said.

“We don’t want to take any chances on bringing a box up there that isn’t going to be 100 percent working to the absolute best that it can,” Burch said. “We don’t want to leave any stones unturned on the way to the launch pad.”

Once they had overcome the glitch that had forced science operations to cease, Hubble operators wasted no time in using the space telescope to photograph the stunning cosmic image of the Arp 147 galaxies.