NASA has partnered with SpaceX and the Polaris program to explore the potential of using a Dragon spacecraft to push the Hubble Space Telescope into a higher orbit, thereby extending its lifespan.
Since its launch in April 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has become a science powerhouse. To date, it has captured over 1.5 million observations of the cosmos and fueled the publication of over 19,000 scientific papers.
Unfortunately, the legendary telescope cannot continue to observe the sky indefinitely. Hubble is starting to show its age. Over the past three decades, the trusty observatory has suffered a host of hardware and software problems, the most serious of which were resolved during daring maintenance missions in the age of shuttles.
However, despite these difficulties, it remains an impressive tool for astronomers trying to unlock the mysteries of the universe.
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“After more than 32 years, Hubble remains incredibly scientifically productive, with unique capabilities to explore the unknowns of the universe,” Hubble Telescope Project Manager Patrick Crouse told a joint press conference. NASA, SpaceX. “Using these unique capabilities, in conjunction with the James Webb Space Telescope, enables greater productivity than either mission would have achieved working alone.”
One of the main factors limiting Hubble’s lifespan is its slowly decaying orbit. When launched in 1990, Hubble was placed in a stable orbit 380 miles high. However, over the past 32 years, atmospheric drag has forced the telescope into a lower orbit – just 335 miles above Earth’s surface. The most recent projections give Hubble a one in two chance of burning up in Earth’s atmosphere in the year 2037.
A new hope
However, depending on the success of a new study, Hubble could get a reprieve. NASA recently announced a new Space Act agreement – or partnership – with SpaceX and the Polaris program, which will see the collaborators explore the potential of using a Dragon spacecraft to boost the degrading orbit of the Hubble Space Telescope.
It would be a tricky business. Understanding how to rendezvous two spacecraft in low Earth orbit is a complex undertaking at the best of times, though it has become relatively common in modern spaceflight thanks to the Station’s crew rotation requirements. international space.
Scientists will also need to develop a way to modify a Dragon spacecraft to allow it to dock safely with the telescope and figure out how to fire its thrusters to raise Hubble’s orbit without endangering its delicate instruments.
The key to safely docking the two spacecraft may be the soft-grab mechanism that was installed on Hubble’s rear bulkhead during the Shuttle’s last servicing mission in 2009. This ring-shaped addition has was originally designed to allow a robotic probe to cling to the observatory in order to deorbit it in a controlled manner. However, it could also be a way to extend Hubble’s lifespan.
The 6-month feasibility study will also examine whether such a mission could do the telescope a disservice, such as replacing some of the gyroscopes that help Hubble stay stable when making observations of distant stars and galaxies.
In an ideal scenario, NASA and SpaceX would seek to relaunch Hubble into its original orbit 380 miles above Earth – a move that would significantly extend its scientific career and allow it to complement observations made by the James Webb Space Telescope.
NASA would like to emphasize that the agreement with SpaceX is only a feasibility study designed to explore commercial opportunities and that it has not committed to greenlighting a maintenance mission. Nor does it pay SpaceX or the Polaris program to undertake their part of the research.
However, if the results of the study are promising, then the opportunity to extend Hubble’s scientific career would be a tempting prospect.
Either way, while Hubble and Dragon are the focus of the new study, its findings could be used to inform any future missions to service a spacecraft or give it an orbital boost.
“SpaceX and the Polaris program want to push the boundaries of current technology and explore how business partnerships can creatively solve complex and difficult problems,” commented the vice president of operations and customer integration at SpaceX, Jessica Jensen. “Missions such as the Hubble Servicing would help us expand space capabilities to ultimately help us all achieve our goals of becoming a space-based, multi-planetary civilization.”
Anthony Wood is a freelance science writer for IGN