The operations of the Hubble Space Telescope's most technologically advanced camera have been suspended after it encountered a hardware problem, NASA said. However, the telescope will continue to perform science observations with its other three active instruments, while the Wide Field Camera 3 anomaly is investigated, the US space agency said in a statement. The Hubble Wide Field Camera 3 was installed by spacewalking astronauts during Servicing Mission 4 in 2009.
NASA said that the camera is equipped with back up electronics that can be called to action should they be needed to recover the instrument. Hubble is the first major optical telescope to be placed in space, providing an unobstructed view into the universe.
Launched in 1990, the world's first space telescope helped confirm the theory that the universe is expanding, lending credence to the Big Bang theory. Hubble has made more than 1.3 million observations since its mission began in 1990, taking pictures of stars and galaxies of as it whirls around the Earth.
Astronomers using Hubble data have published more than 15,000 scientific papers, making it one of the most productive scientific instruments ever built.
Meanwhile, in some good news, NASA's latest planet hunting probe discovered a new world outside our solar system, orbiting a dwarf star 53 light years away. This is the third new planet confirmed by the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) since its launch in April last year.
The planet, named HD 21749b, orbits a bright, nearby dwarf star about 53 light years away, in the constellation Reticulum, and appears to have the longest orbital period of the three planets so far identified by TESS. HD 21749b journeys around its star in a relatively leisurely 36 days, compared to the two other planets -- Pi Mensae b, a "super-Earth" with a 6.3-day orbit, and LHS 3844b, a rocky world that speeds around its star in just 11 hours.
All three planets were discovered in the first three months of TESS observations. The surface of the new planet is likely around 300 degrees Fahrenheit -- relatively cool, given its proximity to its star, which is almost as bright as the sun.
"It's the coolest small planet that we know of around a star this bright," said Diana Dragomir, a postdoc in Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, who led the discovery. "We know a lot about atmospheres of hot planets, but because it's very hard to find small planets that orbit farther from their stars, and are therefore cooler, we haven't been able to learn much about these smaller, cooler planets. But here we were lucky, and caught this one, and can now study it in more detail," Dragomir said.
The planet is about three times the size of Earth, which puts it in the category of a "sub-Neptune." Surprisingly, it is also a whopping 23 times as massive as the Earth.
However, it is unlikely that the planet is rocky and therefore habitable; it's more likely made of gas, of a kind that is much more dense than the atmospheres of either Neptune or Uranus. "We think this planet wouldn't be as gaseous as Neptune or Uranus, which are mostly hydrogen and really puffy. The planet likely has a density of water, or a thick atmosphere," Dragomir said.
Researchers have also detected evidence of a second planet, with a shorter, 7.8-day orbiting the same planetary system, though it is yet to be confirmed. If it is confirmed as a planet, it could be the first Earth-sized planet discovered by TESS.