back to article Hubble's 486 back-up springs into life

NASA is cautiously optimistic that Hubble will soon be back in action following a boot-up of the space telescope's venerable 486 back-up system. Hubble was last month blinded by the failure of the Control Unit/Science Data Formatter (CU/SDF) in its operational Side A Science Instrument Command and Data Handling unit (SIC&DH), …


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  1. David Hendy

    so cool

    I like stories like this. It's nice to hear about old crap becoming useful again. What kind of 486 CPU is in there? I wonder if they can overclock it a bit. Think of all the BIOS updates they can now upload!

    good stuff

  2. Kai Lockwood

    yeah, so?

    ...I've dug up Mac Pluses from nasty, dirty basements that booted just find. Why wouldn't a radiation hardened 486 with core memory boot in it's dustless, shielded little envelope of NASA-love?

  3. Geoff Mackenzie

    I'm impressed ...

    ... I'm never in science mode on Friday morning.

  4. Nigel Wright

    Rock & Roll

    And some people think we need quad core monsters to write e-mails....meanwhile sapceships fly on ancient 486s. Way to go!

  5. Jiminy Krikett
    Thumb Up

    Bloody clever stuff!

    As the title says... All bloody clever stuff this, and driven off a 486 too!

  6. Martin
    Thumb Down

    First time in eighteen years?

    So what happened to resiliency testing then?

    There is no point in having a backup system if you don't test that it is still working on a regular basis.

  7. Anton Ivanov

    The days before silicon was pushed to its limits

    Those were the days when CPUs did not require a heatsink and in the really rare cases where they did, it was a small passive one. Unfortunately this all went south from PPro onwards.

  8. Piers

    "brought Hubble out of safe mode..."

    >This afternoon the team brought Hubble out of safe mode and placed the 486 computer back in control...

    Windows 3.1 then?

    (Joke alert for the Irony challenged...)

  9. It wasnt me

    486 computer ?

    Presumably this isnt the intel i486, launched in 1989?

    I very mush doublt if that would have made it onto hubble (launched in a very different waqy just a year later in 1990).

    Thats not the sort of development cycle or part heritage that NASA (or any other space agency) would normally fly with.

  10. Efros
    Paris Hilton

    486 cpu

    has to be running turbo Pascal! Or maybe ZBasic.


    Paris cos she knows a good 'pooter' when she sees one.

  11. Anonymous Coward

    "This afternoon the team brought Hubble out of safe mode"

    lol, did they have to reboot holding f8 to get into safe mode.

  12. Matthew
    Thumb Up

    they could do all that with a 486

    Just shows how lazy programs are now days heh, imagine if symantec had designed it :)

  13. Blitheringeejit

    Safe mode??

    But how did they manage to press F8 to boot it into Safe Mode in the first place?

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    not 18 years old

    The space telescope's computers were upgraded to 486s in 1999, so they've only been up there for 9 or so years.

  15. Colin Guthrie

    B-side? 1990?

    Somewhere, in the dark perpetual night of space, the sweet tones of Bananarama's "Only for your Love (Hardcore Instrumental)" and the Human League's "Rebound", click into action.....

  16. TimM
    Thumb Up

    still use a 486

    A 486 still powers the laptop I use as a simple text console for my home server. Hasn't even got enough memory to run Windows! Works fine with DOS and a copy of Kermit though. Also still has a copy of Doom on it :-). Boots in seconds too. Ah, those were the days.

    In fact my server is an AMD K6-2 and I have no plans on changing it.

    I did retire the Pentium 133 some years ago though. I ran it as a router for a while, but it was bulky and draws a lot of power compared to home routers these days.

  17. Glenn Gilbert

    Surely it's a 386

    The 486 wasn't generally available until 1990, maybe later if memory serves me well. With the extended development lead times -- it's booted! -- it's more likely it was a 386 or even a 286. Or even a Motorola 68000 which was way ahead of Intel in those days.

  18. Simon Coyne


    > There is no point in having a backup system if you don't test that it is still working on a regular basis.

    Once every 18 years is a regular basis, it's just that the cycle is a little long.

    Kudos to the design and build engineers though.

  19. frymaster

    Re: It wasnt me

    "Thats not the sort of development cycle or part heritage that NASA (or any other space agency) would normally fly with"

    I seem to recall they upgraded the computer at the same time as they were giving the hubble its spectacles, so it didn't have the 486 in it from launch

  20. greg
    Thumb Up

    First time in eighteen years?

    What's the point in resilliency testing a system in space? It's sored in a cold vacuum, and can't gather dust or anything else that might cause damage. If anything, the resilliency testing would have more likely blown it up prematurely.

  21. Jolyon

    @Martin re: resiliency testing

    Was my first thought.


    When are those components most likely to fail?

    And what would be done if they failed their resilience testing?

    My guess is that powering them up and down unnecessarily would be more likely to break them than leaving them sitting there and if they were found to be faulty there wouldn't be a lot that could be done about it.

  22. Elmer Phud
    IT Angle

    At last

    It was just that the Hubble had run out of coal and they'd mislaid the shovel.

    Nothing to do with 'safe mode', they were just waiting until the 486 had got enough steam pressure up before being able to run it.

  23. MacroRodent

    Re: And some people think we need quad core monsters to write e-mails..

    > And some people think we need quad core monsters to write e-mails....meanwhile sapceships fly on ancient 486s.

    The very succesful Viking Mars landers, and Voyager and Galileo deep space probes ran on RCA 8-bit processors (e.g. see ). Your TV remote control probably has more processing power these days...

  24. Scott

    @it wasnt me

    According to

    the 486-based "Advanced Computer" was installed as an upgrade in 1999 as part of Servicing Mission 3A. It appears this is a separate system to the SIC&DH system which contains the failed SDF module.

  25. Hedley Phillips


    I think this is just brilliant. There we have an 18 year old computer in space still working and controlling a satellite space telescope.

    How damn cool is that!

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Ask 'em what operating system it's running...:)

    Microsnot eat your heart out.

  27. Graeme McKeague
    Paris Hilton

    RE: I'm impressed ...

    ""... I'm never in science mode on Friday morning.""

    Last time i checked this was a thursday......

    Although we all wish it was friday

  28. David Cornes

    @ Piers

    Windows 3.1 didn't have a Safe Mode (oh that it should have!). It had Real and Protected modes, which related to the way it accessed the CPU and stuff (think DOS vs virtualised modes etc), and possibly a third full 386 instruction compatible one but it's all such a long time ago and I can't be that bothered to Google it.

    As for CPU heatsinks, I think they first appeared around the time that the clock doublers (486 DX2s et al) started to arrive...?

  29. Stuart Halliday


    Ah so no Chinese components in Hubble then?


  30. Kenneth Chan

    Turbo Button!

    I wounder if the reboot would be faster if they hit the "TURBO" button?

    BTW Intel or AMD?

  31. This post has been deleted by its author

  32. Alex Hawdon
    Black Helicopters

    " restore science operations"

    I knew it! I always suspected Hubble had some other purpose! Why else would they spend so much time and money on it when surely these days you could send up something much better.

    SOL anyone?

  33. Llanfair

    That's when I upgraded from 486

    Wow! When I just upgraded from an AMD 486 DX3-99 to an AMD K6, NASA decide to install a 486. I did manage to run Windows 95 quite well on the 486. Just had some difficulty with playing high quality mp3 files.

  34. Anonymous Coward

    Just after it rebooted

    It was hit with 12,476 advert emails for Viagra and 3,612 emails suggesting that the Hubble has unrealised funds tied up in Nigeria.

  35. Anonymous Coward

    @ Llanfair

    "high quality mp3 files" - surely an oxymoron..?!

  36. Luke Wells

    I wish windows had a "Science Mode" when I pressed F8

    Ah it makes me laugh how people think it's funny that NASA use 486's

    Fortunately it would seem that NASA still have talented assembly programmers that can write complex mathematical programs that require very few resources.

    There is no reason why people that only write e-mails and use word/excel couldn't still use a 486, apart from the fact that every generation of windows becomes more bloated than the last.

    I remember when I did a windows 3.1 installation on an AMD system (something like a K2-450?) just to see what would happen.

    After typing win at the dos prompt and pressing ENTER, there was a click from the hard drive and the windows desktop appeared in probably around 0.5 seconds.......... and there are some people in the world today that think Vista is a good thing lol

  37. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Nothing wrong with the 486...

    ...just the OS it had to run. The Hubble 486 won't be running anything as demanding as a Windows / linux OS.

    Reminds me of the time my ex employer got a pentium class PC with a new version of some analytical software used to interpret chemical analysis spectra etc running in Windows 95. They plugged it into the kit and then discovered that it ran really slow.

    They went back to the old 486 Pc running the old software in DOS, which did everything needed in a third of the time (they ran timed trials using recorded data just for fun)

    Makes me wonder if we could go back to having some applications coded for DOS on modern multicore machines, just how fast would they churn out data?

  38. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Luke Wells

    In 1999 / 2000 I did a contract installing stuff for a County Council in the East Midlands.

    As councils tend to be well behind the times in terms of what they will sign off for use they would only allow schools etc. to use Windows 3.11 on the desktop.

    Win 3.11 on a PII/400 PIII/450 tended to boot like:

    at about the speed you can read the above.

  39. Joe Cooper

    @Nothing wrong with the 486

    "Makes me wonder if we could go back to having some applications coded for DOS on modern multicore machines, just how fast would they churn out data?"

    As fast as they would if you had one core, seeing as DOS doesn't support SMP.

  40. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @The days before silicon was pushed to its limits

    Erm... actually I think you would need a heat sink, there is no air up there to allow convection/conduction cooling... so a radiator of some sort would be a necessity!

  41. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @ greg

    'What's the point in resilliency testing a system in space? It's sored in a cold vacuum, and can't gather dust or anything else that might cause damage.'

    The temperature of space is not the most important factor; Hubble's orbit takes into the Earth's shadow and into direct sunlight so it is exposed to extremes of about -160C to 200C on a regular basis.

    There are also resiliency tests needed to see how the hardware copes with the highly reactive monatomic oxygen you find around the Earth and for energetic particles trapped in the Earth's magnetic field, especially in places like the South Atlantic Anomaly where the Van Allen Belts come close to the Earth's surface.

  42. RW

    @ David Cornes re Win 3.1

    "Real" and "386 Enhanced" modes. "Real" mode would run Windows on a 286, but they dropped it in Windows for Workgroups.

    The net effect was whether you had virtual memory or not.

    IIRC, of course.

    As for DOS apps on modern machines, there are still people out there who swear that Wordperfect 5.1, a DOS app, remains the word processor of choice for serious work. I've seen the phrase "the most perfect program ever written" used to describe WP5.1.

    And clever users have figured out how WP5.1 can utilize Windows printers & fonts, too!

  43. Anonymous Coward

    Actually 486 is quite heavy and complex...

    The more complex and high tech the cpu is the easies it would be that an accidental incoming gamma radiation photon would cause a cpu error.

    They want fault tolerant robust cpu's on purpose.

    Why then an intel? and not an ARM / MIPS?

  44. Anonymous Coward

    This is sad...

    I live 90 miles from the Kennedy Space Center, and El Reg's space coverage is far better than the local newspaper.

  45. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Heatsinks ...

    My first PC was a 286 with a massive heatsink because, although it only ran at between 10-12 MHz, it was very hot. This was around 1987-88 I recall.

    It had the full 1Meg of on-board memory and a huge 40 Mb hard disk!

    Ventura and WordPerfect ran very fast on it too.

    Ahhhhh ... bliss.

  46. Jason
    Thumb Up

    @Martin re: resiliency testing

    Hubble's lifespan was estimated at around 20 years before it was to be replaced. Considering the number of issues it has had over the years, even with extensive testing, it is amazing to see a seldom used CPU is still functional in such a hostile environment for so many years.

  47. Chris

    Actually, the 486 is quite powerful....

    People are so wealthy now with all the storage and processing they have available. You may not believe this but the Hubble was originally launched in 1990 with an USAF DF-224 computer that had a whopping 32k of plated wire memory.



    Yes, the HST was essentially using the equivalent of a Commodore VIC-20.

    In the first servicing mission the computer was upgraded to run with a co-processor, a beast 386 with a meg of RAM. Talk about a jump. Going from 32k to a full Meg. it's like moving from a cardboard box to a mansion. This 486 with 6 times more memory that was installed in 1999 is sheer luxury.

  48. J

    Re: some applications coded for DOS

    "Makes me wonder if we could go back to having some applications coded for DOS on modern multicore machines, just how fast would they churn out data?"

    I do it still, but not with DOS (yuck), but Linux booted in single user mode, level 3. First time I did it was in 2000, when I tried this for some phylogenetic analysis for my PhD. I didn't compare booting graphical versus CLI only in Linux, but I did run exactly the same analysis in CLI Linux and DOS. Linux was about 6-10 times faster, depending on which dataset I ran. CLI vs. graphical in Windows was quite some difference, although I don't remember exactly how much (more than 2x, I'm sure).

  49. John Savard


    Processors aren't the only things that improved since Hubble was first launched. When the Space Telescope was originally launched, the Wide-Field/Planetary Camera, which provided the impressive pictures from it, included two image sensors built from four abutting 800 by 800 CCD arrays. At the time, a 2.5 Megapixel image sensor was really impressive. Today, a 10 Megapixel image sensor is something you can pick up in ordinary cameras that sell for a few hundred dollars.

  50. vic denwood
    Thumb Up

    AMSTRAD PC 1640

    I still use my Amstrad PC 1640 vintage Nov 1986 as my home PC. It was millenium bug proof It runs WP5.1 perfectly and has Autoroute 84 loaded, so I can never get lost on the M25 - it doesn't exist

  51. Doug Sloane
    Thumb Up

    That 80486 chip

    That chip is going to take one look at stock prices and think it's still 1990.

  52. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Development cycle

    If NASA's development cycles are comparable to the military's, then it's no wonder that they used a 486 as late as 1999.

    When I was working in radio reconnaissance in 1991, manual position fixing was done with an Atari ST520. The new automatic position fixing system installed that year was either 8086 or 286 based (memory is a bit flaky). The analysts had some 8088 based computers with a non-COTS GUI that were installed just one or two years previously. Somewhere in a dusty corner was a mid-80s VAX installation that was never going to see service.

    Posting anonymously, for obvious reasons.

  53. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton


    Well I still use my 1946 ENIAC at home with 1 nibble of RAM, I quite happily run Word Perfect 1944 and Autoroute 194...oh wait

  54. Daniel B.

    Computers last a long time

    I can attest to that.

    Our 1986 Mac Plus was fully operational, and running System 7.1 way after its value had fallen below a Big Mac's price tag: 1999. The only reason it actually died was because of a power supply fault.

    Our 1996 Performa is *still* chugging happily at my mom's home, running MacOS 8.

    My only quirk with NASA using a 486 is that they used Intel. For that kind of stuff, shouldn't they had gone down the ARM way? Or maybe even MIPS...

  55. Anonymous Coward

    @ James 16/10...

    The original equipment on Hubble is a computer called the DF-224. It is a

    very old 8-bit computer with 64K CORE memory. It has proven very reliable

    and works well but obviously it does not have much more processing capability

    than most modern calculators.

    googled it and got an old nasa discusion blog thingie

  56. Bob Holtzmann

    For space, a 486 is better...

    NASA regularly uses old computer equipment for its satellites and probes. This is because the circuitry has much more bulk, and is more capable of withstanding the bombardment of xrays and gamma rays, not to mention high speed micrometeors.

  57. James O'Brien

    NASA (R) Hubble 3.11 (R) (Build 3000)

    "This afternoon the team brought Hubble out of safe mode and placed the 486 computer back in control."

    Hubble is running in safe mode.

    This special diagnostic mode of Hubble enables you to fix a problem which may be caused by your network or hardware settings. Make sure these settings are correct in Control Panel, and then try starting Hubble again. While in safe mode, some of your devices may not be available.

    To proceed to work in safe mode, click Yes. If you prefer to use System Restore to restore your Hubble to a previous state, click No.

    Wonder if they tried to click no :)

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