The Hubble telescope found the brightest quasar ever and also needs a fix

Posted at 9:31 AM, Jan 10, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-10 09:32:07-05

(CNN) — One of the premier cameras on the Hubble Space Telescope is no longer working and NASA has shut it down while the issue is investigated.

It’s not all bad news, however: the Hubble recently captured the brightest quasar in the early universe, the space agency revealed on Wednesday.

A quasar is the ultra-bright center of a newly forming galaxy, expelling energy as gas is consumed by the black hole at its heart.

The Hubble telescope, which travels the Earth at about 5 miles per second — equivalent to driving from America’s East to West Coast in 10 minutes — faces out to space to take pictures of planets, stars and galaxies to help scientists learn about the solar system.

The quasar found by the Hubble is 12.8 billion light-years away, NASA said, but was detectable thanks to the amplifying impact of a less distant galaxy.

NASA called the quasar, which emits light equivalent to 600 trillion suns, “the brightest object ever seen at a time when the universe was less than one billion years old.”

Lead investigator Xiaohui Fan, from the University of Arizona, said in a news release: “We don’t expect to find many quasars brighter than that in the whole observable universe.”

The Wide Field Camera 3, or WFC3, which was installed in 2009, reported an error on Tuesday and its operations were suspended. The camera helps scientists study a range of objects, from distant galaxies to nearby star systems.

“Hubble will continue to perform science observations with its other three active instruments, while the Wide Field Camera 3 anomaly is investigated,” reads astatement from NASA.

Tom Brown, the Hubble mission head at the Space Telescope Science Institute, said teams are busy troubleshooting the issue and a reboot to the system might be an option as a fix.

“Eventually electronics break,” said Brown. “That’s why redundant systems are installed.”

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, took to Twitter to share an update:

“This is when everyone gets a reminder about two crucial aspects of space exploration: 1) complex systems like @NASAHubble only work due to a dedicated team of amazing experts; 2) all space systems have finite life-times and such issues are bound to happen from time to time.”

Brown said he is confident the issue will be resolved in the next week or two.

“If a reboot doesn’t work, there are redundant systems we can switch instruments over to,” Brown said. “But we are still figuring out what the right path forward is.”

He also mentioned that the government shutdown is not affecting the repairs.

“The flight operations folks are considered essential and we’ve been in talks on repairs,” Brown said. “Primary experts are troubleshooting this right now.”

The WFC3 is out of commission for now but the other three instruments (Advanced Camera for Surveys, the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph) on the Hubble are working.

“In the meantime, the Hubble is operating on its three instruments,” Brown said. “They are getting plenty of science on those.”

In October, the Hubble was placed in “safe mode”after one of the three gyroscopes used to aim and steady the telescope failed.