Though it may have been eclipsed by the launch of its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, long-lived Hubble continues to gaze deep into the universe.
JWST specializes in infrared, versus optical and ultraviolet wavelengths, so the telescope functions complement each other rather than overlap. To that end, NASA has tapped SpaceX for a feasibility study on how the private space company could service Hubble and boost it to a higher orbit at no cost to the US government.
Hubble launched in 1990 with an anticipated lifespan of 15 years and, thanks to the Space Shuttle servicing missions, continues to be scientifically productive. “All indications are that the telescope will continue operating into the late 2020s and possibly beyond,” NASA reckons.
So why not try to keep it up there? Hubble originally orbited at 600km but over the decades has fallen to around 540km. NASA would like to get it higher, perhaps extending its life by some 20-30 years before it meets a fiery death in the atmosphere.
SpaceX, working with billionaire and commercial astronaut Jared Isaacman’s Polaris Program, proposes performing the boost with its Dragon capsule, which otherwise ferries astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
The study will examine the technical hurdles involved in servicing Hubble by collecting data from both the telescope and Dragon over the course of six months. “This data will help determine whether it would be possible to safely rendezvous, dock, and move the telescope into a more stable orbit,” NASA said.
The study is non-exclusive, meaning commercial options from other companies could be entertained. Northrop Grumman, for example, already has its Mission Extension Vehicle, which grapples onto stricken satellites to provide attitude control and orbital maintenance.
“This study is an exciting example of the innovative approaches NASA is exploring through private-public partnerships,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “As our fleet grows, we want to explore a wide range of opportunities to support the most robust, superlative science missions possible.”
Hubble was last serviced in 2009 by a Space Shuttle crew who fitted a “capture ring” intended for future visitors to hook onto the spacecraft and move it for controlled disposal. SpaceX’s Dragon could potentially use the same device to do the opposite.
“SpaceX and the Polaris Program want to expand the boundaries of current technology and explore how commercial partnerships can creatively solve challenging, complex problems,” said Jessica Jensen, vice president of Customer Operations & Integration at SpaceX. “Missions such as servicing Hubble would help us expand space capabilities to ultimately help all of us achieve our goals of becoming a space-faring, multiplanetary civilization.”
Aside from the decaying orbit, Hubble is showing its age. Throughout 2021, the spacecraft was beset with technical issues. First there was a month-long outage due to problems with a power control unit, then the loss of a synchronization message put full science operations on hold until December.
Since there’s no expectation of 32-year-old hardware working that well on Earth, let alone in orbit, there’s every chance Hubble could perish before anyone can get there. ®