The ageing telescope’s wide-field camera could be turned off for a while as NASA employees are unable to repair it because of the indefinite political impasse.

The Hubble telescope’s main instrument stopped working on 8 January due to a hardware problem, NASA said, according to the journal Nature. However, engineers won’t be able to fix the telescope until the US government shutdown ends.

Hubble’s mission operations are based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where most employees are on involuntary leave during the shutdown, with only a few people left to monitor flying spacecraft in the center.

Fixing the problem with Hubble, which is almost 30 years old, would require additional government employees who are forbidden to work during the shutdown. NASA reportedly has formed an investigative team, mostly consisting of contractors and experts from its industry partners, to examine the technical troubles.

Federal law allows agencies to keep some personnel working during the shutdown if it is necessary to protect life and property, yet it is still unclear whether NASA would be granted such an emergency exception in order to make the repairs before the end of the shutdown.

The camera that broke was Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. The telescope has one other camera and two spectrographs that remain operational and will keep collecting data, NASA said in an announcement.

Earlier in October, Hubble stopped working entirely for three weeks after the failure of one of the gyroscopes that it uses to orient itself in space, and it took input from experts across NASA to fix the problem.

Hubble launched in 1990 and has been upgraded and updated five times by visiting astronauts, the last time in 2009. The Wide Field Camera 3 was installed during that final servicing mission.

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