NASA has signed an agreement with SpaceX to test the feasibility of using a commercial crew to raise the orbit of Hubble and extend its lifespan.
The Hubble Space Telescope launched on April 24, 1990, and it has been delivering groundbreaking views of the cosmos ever since. The newly launched Webb telescope is cool and everything, but Hubble is the OG of space telescopes. Unfortunately, the aging telescope is set to retire by the end of the decade—that is unless SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft can give it a hand.
As part of the recent agreement, NASA and SpaceX will conduct a joint study to try and raise Hubble to its initial altitude of 373 miles (600 km), allowing it to remain operational for a few more years. SpaceX would send a commercial crew aboard its Dragon capsule to service the telescope. “It’s wholly appropriate for us to look at this because of the tremendous value this research asset has for us, as well as others,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said during a press conference on Thursday. “We’re looking at crazy ideas all the time...that’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Although Hubble is in good health today, the atmospheric drag will eventually cause it to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere sometime in the mid-to-late 2030s. Hubble’s orbital height has descended by about 18 miles (30 kilometers) since 2009.
The duration of the study is about six months long, and SpaceX will study Dragon’s capability of rendezvousing with Hubble and docking with the telescope. “We’re going to look at all the different options,” Jessica Jensen, vice president of customer operations and integration at SpaceX, said during the press conference. The study could conclude that the servicing mission doesn’t need a crew on board and only use the spacecraft to raise Hubble’s orbit, according to Jensen.
The private space company is looking into using its Polaris Program, three SpaceX missions organized and led by billionaire space enthusiast Jared Isaacman, for the Hubble servicing mission. “If the study takes us down a path where a mission is possible, this would certainly fit within the parameters we established for the Polaris program,” Isaacman said during the press conference. The first of the Polaris missions could take off as early as March 2023.
NASA and SpaceX have been cooperating on the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program, but this would definitely take their partnership to another level. SpaceX approached NASA with the idea of the study in order to better understand the technical challenges associated with servicing missions, according to NASA.
In the 1990s, NASA used its space shuttle missions to service the Hubble telescope. Five shuttle crews paid visits to the telescope in order to maintain and upgrade the telescope, allowing it to keep observing the universe for so many years. If the feasibility study fails, then NASA will send an end-of-life mission to the Hubble telescope to bring it down safely by the end of the 2020s rather than let it crash through Earth’s atmosphere in a burning flame.
Additional reporting by George Dvorsky.