A new Life for Hubble

NASA has issued a request for information to return Hubble to its original orbit and give a new life to Space Telescope Hubble
On the left, the Hubble Space Telescope; on the right, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft

NASA is examining the possibility of using a private spacecraft to breathe new life to Hubble Space Telescope by placing it at its original altitude. On December 22, the American space agency issued a request for information regarding a SpaceX study. Elon Musk’s company’s analysis earlier this year suggested that the Hubble Space Telescope could be “brought back” to a higher orbit.

Repositioning Hubble

NASA request for information (ref.) arrives as the future of the space telescope continues to be considered and will remain open until January 24, 2023. Launched back in 1990, the orbit of the space telescope, at 600 km above Earth, has lost about 60 km in altitude over 30 years. Returning it to a higher and more stable orbit could add more years to Hubble ‘s operational life, delaying the inevitable moment when NASA will have to dispose of the telescope.

In the past, the telescope has undergone maintenance operations. The previous five missions were carried out by the Space Shuttle and its crews, and they allowed the telescope to provide us with scientific knowledge and spectacular images. The last maintenance mission with the Shuttle was in 2009, and two years later, in 2011, NASA retired the entire Space Shuttle fleet. According to Patrick Crouse, head of the Hubble project at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the telescope would have a 50% chance of falling to Earth in 2037 if no action is taken before then.

Idea of moving Hubble to a higher orbit using a Dragon spacecraft, without any cost to the American government, was initially developed between SpaceX and the Polaris Program. Latter is a private program of space missions that utilizes SpaceX’s Dragon and Starship vehicles, funded by billionaire Jared Isaacman. Agreement between SpaceX and NASA to study the feasibility of relaunching Hubble was signed in September 2022.

Feasibility study

SpaceX’s feasibility study was designed to assist NASA, which currently has no plans to operate and fund a new Hubble servicing mission. In the analysis, SpaceX also aimed to outline the technical challenges of such a servicing effort. The fact that the study is not exclusive means that other companies are free to propose their own solutions. Each of them could provide assistance to Hubble, using different rockets or spacecraft.

All feasibility analyses will be based on data from the same Hubble and SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. It will be particularly important to evaluate the possibility of a safe rendezvous and docking with the space telescope before moving it to a higher stable orbit. “This study is an exciting example of the innovative approaches NASA is exploring through public-private partnerships”, said Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen in a statement. “As our fleet grows, we want to explore a wide range of opportunities to support the most robust and outstanding scientific missions possible” he added.

The Hubble relaunch operation would demonstrate how older satellites and spacecraft could have a second operational life, much like vehicles in near-Earth orbit. “SpaceX and the Polaris program aim to expand the boundaries of current technology. They explore how commercial partnerships can creatively solve more complex and challenging problems,” said Jessica Jensen, SpaceX’s Vice President of Customer Operations. “Missions like the Hubble servicing would help us expand our space capabilities to assist us all in achieving our goals of becoming a multi-planetary civilization traveling in space.”

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