Trouble with the $150-million Astro observatory today delayed Columbia astronauts’ scientific research, and as the hours ticked by scientists on the ground said some planned observations would not be made.
“There’s a definite loss as we go,” said mission scientist Ted Gull. “Some objects are just going to slip off the list.”
Despite hours of efforts that stretched into early afternoon, NASA officials had trouble calibrating the observatory’s instrument pointing system, which affects all three ultraviolet telescopes. A problem involving a computer that controls the movements of one telescope, however, was solved.
Mission manager Jack Jones said another star tracker on board, attached to one of the telescopes, will be used to point the telescopes if the main pointing system continues to malfunction. The instrument is more awkward to operate, however, since it is designed for another purpose.
“Whichever one of these we demonstrate can work first, our plan is to immediately go into that mode of operation and start gathering science,” he said.
The Astro had been expected to look at about 250 high-energy objects, including stars, quasars, galaxies, Jupiter, a supernova and Comet Levy.
The ultraviolet light and X-rays emitted from these objects cannot be seen by ground-based instruments because they are unable to penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere.
Because at least half a day of work has now been lost, that number will be trimmed, officials said.
“Sure we’re disappointed, but we knew this was a crucial step and might go slower than we planned,” said Arthur Code, a University of Wisconsin scientist who helped design one of the telescopes.
Columbia blasted into orbit early Sunday on a mission that was originally scheduled to fly in 1986 but was postponed by the Challenger explosion. Hydrogen leaks forced three launch delays earlier this year, and a telescope problem halted a fourth countdown.