In the mid-2030s, Hubble Space Telescope’s orbit will decay even more and the telescope will end up burning up in Earth’s atmosphere. But not all is lost! In fact, NASA is looking for a way to save the legendary space telescope and SpaceX could have the solution.
On December 22, 2022, NASA opened a new Request for Information, aiming to study commercial capabilities available to reboost a satellite in orbit.
Three months before, on September 22, NASA and SpaceX reached a Space Act Agreement to study the feasibility of the project presented by SpaceX and Polaris Program, involving the Crew Dragon spacecraft to reboost Hubble.
NASA issued a Request for Information today seeking additional information about capabilities to reboost a satellite in orbit, using Hubble as a demonstration, at no cost to the government: https://t.co/PWvQsBvm20 pic.twitter.com/7RSz49ucaU— Hubble (@NASAHubble) December 22, 2022
The importance of Hubble
The Hubble Space Telescope, built in cooperation between NASA and ESA, was launched on April 24, 1990, inside the payload bay of the Space Shuttle Discovery. During its 32-year career, Hubble has forever changed our perspective of the cosmos thanks to great scientific discoveries and thousands of impressive images. Hubble has revealed properties of space and time that, for most of human history, were only probed in the imaginations of scientists and philosophers.
Nowadays, Hubble continues to make new discoveries and provide exciting shots of our universe. After the James Webb deployment, we are also discovering the benefits of having both telescopes working together. For example, on September 26, both Web and Hubble captured images of the DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) mission.
As Patrick Crouse, Hubble’s Project Manager said:
“After more than 32 years, the Hubble remains incredibly productive scientifically, with unique capabilities for exploring the universe. We won’t last forever, but we are trying to last as long as it can.“
The 32-year-old Hubble Space Telescope is now operating at an altitude of 330 miles (531 kilometers) and is slowly decaying over time. Thanks to a reboost maneuver, the telescope could be lifted to the original 370-miles (595 kilometers) orbit of 1990, when the Hubble was deployed. That could add another 15 to 20 years to the telescope’s life.
The mission is one of the most challenging in space engineering history. NASA and SpaceX have to figure out a lot of changes on the Dragon spacecraft. First of all, if the crew will have to perform an extravehicular activity (EVA) to provide repairs of life-limiting items, such as gyroscopes, SpaceX needs to make the Crew Dragon suitable for EVA missions. The Polaris Dawn mission will be fundamental to it.
In 2009 the STS-125 mission (the last service Space Shuttle mission to the Hubble telescope), added a Soft Capture Mechanism on the bottom of Hubble, to allow for future spacecraft docking. This is an important element for a possible reboost mission. However, the Crew Dragon will need some modification on the capsule nose cone, to use the docking structure.
More about the Polaris program
The idea of using SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft to save the Hubble telescope was proposed by the billionaire Jared Isaacman, founder and financier of the Polaris Program.
Isaacman is a pioneer in the commercial human spaceflight sector: in September 2021 he commanded the Inspiration4 mission, the first all-civilian spaceflight to low Earth Orbit.
In February 2022, Isaacman announced a deal with SpaceX for the purchase of three civilian spaceflights called Polaris Program. The first two flights will use the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. The third one will instead be the first crewed mission on board the new Starship launch vehicle.
The first flight, called Polaris Dawn, is planned for no earlier than March 2023 and will last 5 days. During this mission, the Polaris crew will conduct research about the health impact of long-duration spaceflights. This will also be the first mission to test the Starlink laser-based communication in space. Thus providing valuable data for future space communications systems necessary for missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
But that’s not all! Polaris Dawn crew will try to achieve the first-ever civilian extravehicular activity (spacewalk). All Polaris Program missions are in collaboration with the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a pediatric and research facility focused on children’s diseases. The Inspiration4 mission raised a total of $ 240 million for St. Jude.