NASA and SpaceX Study How Hubble Can Be Launched into Higher Orbit • The Register

Though eclipsed by the launch of its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, the long-lived Hubble continues to peer deep into the Universe.

JWST specializes in infrared versus optical and ultraviolet wavelengths to make the telescope work add to instead of overlapping. To that end, NASA has tapped into SpaceX for a feasibility study of how the private space company Hubble could maintain and launch into a higher orbit at no cost to the US government.

Launched in 1990 with an expected lifespan of 15 years, Hubble continues to be scientifically productive thanks to the space shuttle’s maintenance missions. “All indications are that the telescope will remain operational through the late 2020s and possibly beyond,” NASA calculates.

It has been sighted this year alone the most distant star in the universeimaged and helped document the largest comet ever identified DART probe rendezvous with an asteroid.

So why not try to keep it up there? Hubble originally orbited at an altitude of 600 km but has dropped to about 540 km over the decades. NASA would like to take it higher and maybe extend its lifespan by about 20 to 30 years before it meets a fiery death in the atmosphere.

SpaceX partners with billionaire and commercial astronauts Jared Isaacmans The Polaris program proposes performing the boost with its Dragon capsule, which otherwise carries astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

The study will examine the technical hurdles associated with maintaining Hubble by collecting data from both the telescope and Dragon over a six-month period. “This data will help determine whether it would be possible to safely strike, dock and place the telescope in a more stable orbit,” NASA said.

The study is non-exclusive, meaning commercial options may be considered by other companies. Northrop Grumman, for example, already has it Mission Extension Vehicleholding on to affected satellites to ensure attitude control and orbit maintenance.

“This study is an exciting example of the innovative approaches NASA is exploring through public-private partnerships,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, deputy administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “As our fleet grows, we want to explore a wide range of possibilities to support the most robust and best scientific missions possible.”

Hubble was last serviced in 2009 by a space shuttle crew, who installed a “catch ring” intended for future visitors to attach to the spacecraft and move it to controlled disposal. SpaceX’s Dragon could potentially use the same device to do the opposite.

“SpaceX and the Polaris program are looking to push 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 like servicing Hubble would help us expand space capabilities to ultimately help us all 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 problems. First there was one month-long outage due to problems with a power control unit, then the loss of a synchronization message put the entire scientific operation on hold until December.

Since there’s no expectation that 32-year-old hardware will work that well on Earth, let alone in orbit, there’s every chance Hubble will perish before anyone can get there. ® NASA and SpaceX Study How Hubble Can Be Launched into Higher Orbit • The Register

Laura Coffey

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