NASA and SpaceX agreed last week on an unfunded study to investigate the feasibility of boosting the Hubble Space Telescope, which is at risk of falling out of orbit within the next decade, into a higher orbit.
SpaceX approached NASA earlier this year about the potential use of one of its Dragon spacecraft to move the telescope to a higher altitude, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said during of a press conference on Thursday.
Hubble was placed in orbit in 1990 and was last serviced and repaired by astronauts in 2009 at an altitude of 350 miles. Over the past 13 years, it’s dropped about 20 miles, according to The New York Times.
Despite signing the Space Act agreement with SpaceX for the six-month project on Sept. 22, Zurbuchen added, “I want to be absolutely clear, we’re not announcing today that we’re definitely going to move forward with a plan like this.”
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Any attempt to reposition the telescope would be privately funded at no cost to the government, NASA said, adding that the study was not exclusive and it would welcome proposals from other space companies.
Moving the telescope to a higher orbit could give Hubble more years of operability, NASA said.
“What we want to do is push the boundaries of current technology,” said Jessica Jensen, vice president of customer relations and integration at SpaceX. “We want to show how we use commercial partnerships as well as public-private partnerships to creatively solve difficult and complex problem missions such as servicing Hubble.”
She said SpaceX is reviewing the capabilities of the Dragon capsule to see how it should be “modified in order to meet and dock safely with Hubble.”
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Without repositioning, NASA may eventually have to destroy the telescope and guide it as it falls from orbit into the ocean, The Times reported.
Any potential mission would be a collaboration between SpaceX and billionaire Jared Isaacman’s Polaris program, a planned series of spaceflights with SpaceX, one of which Isaacman says would include the first civilian spacewalk.
Last year, Isaacman led Inspiration4, SpaceX’s first all-civilian crewed mission.
Over the years, the Hubble Telescope has captured some spectacular images and videos of the cosmos, including the discovery of moons around Pluto.
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The telescope is named after the great 20th century American astronomer Edwin Hubble (1889-1953), who, among other discoveries, found evidence that other galaxies exist beyond the Milky Way.