Hubble captures colliding galaxies after monthlong hiatus

It’s official — NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is back in action after a computer anomaly suddenly shut down the 32-year-old system for a month. And in celebrating its comeback, Hubble released two spectacular new images on Monday showing the depths of the universe. 

Over the weekend, the telescope captured both a “rarely observed” pair of colliding galaxies, and a large “unusual” spiral galaxy, NASA announced. The spiral galaxy captured has three arms, while most galaxies of that kind have an even number.

The images were captured as part of a program at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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On left, Hubble captured ARP-MADORE2115-273, a rarely observed example of a pair of interacting galaxies in the southern hemisphere. On right, Hubble captured ARP-MADORE0002-503, a large spiral galaxy with unusual, extended spiral arms.  Science: NASA, ESA, STScI, Julianne Dalcanton (UW) Image processing: Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

“I’m thrilled to see that Hubble has its eye back on the universe, once again capturing the kind of images that have intrigued and inspired us for decades,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “This is a moment to celebrate the success of a team truly dedicated to the mission. Through their efforts, Hubble will continue its 32nd year of discovery, and we will continue to learn from the observatory’s transformational vision.”

The telescope has been on hiatus since June 13, when its payload computer suddenly stopped working. The failed signal automatically put the telescope’s instruments into a safe mode, NASA said, as it continued to orbit roughly 340 miles above Earth. 

Fixing the telescope was an all-hands-on-deck situation, as NASA had to call in retired staff members to contribute their knowledge about the apparatus. Some of those who helped build the telescope in the 1980s stepped in to help solve the computer problem, while many others dove into documents that are as much as 40 years old that could provide insight on the malfunction. 

According to NASA, the problem was with telescope’s Power Control Unit, which helps provide a “steady voltage supply” to the computer hardware. 

It took the efforts of more than 50 people over the course of a little over four weeks, but on July 15 at 11:30 p.m. ET, NASA was able to get Hubble working once again, switching operations to its backup hardware. It started gathering data just two days later. 

Jim Jeletic, the deputy project manager of Hubble at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement that the complex switch to the backup hardware required “15 hours of spacecraft commanding from the ground.”  

“The main computer had to be turned off, and a backup safe mode computer temporarily took over the spacecraft. Several boxes also had to be powered on that were never turned on before in space, and other hardware needed their interfaces switched,” Jeletic said. “There was no reason to believe that all of this wouldn’t work, but it’s the team’s job to be nervous and think of everything that could go wrong and how we might compensate for it. The team meticulously planned and tested every small step on the ground to make sure they got it right.”

The last time Hubble had to rely on backup hardware was in 2008. It’s computer unit was replaced the following year, and since then, it has taken more than 600,000 observations, according to NASA. Since it was launched into space in 1990, the telescope has captured more than 1.5 million images.