Science

NASA May Let Billionaire Astronaut and SpaceX Lift Hubble Telescope

If you’ve got a telescope in danger of falling out of orbit, who are you going to call?

The United States Space Force? Nope.

NASA? Maybe not.

Billionaires? Apparently, that is indeed a possibility.

The billionaires in question are Elon Musk, the founder and chief executive of SpaceX, and Jared Isaacman, a technology entrepreneur who led an all-civilian trip to orbit in a SpaceX spacecraft last year.

NASA announced on Thursday that it and SpaceX had signed an agreement to conduct a six-month study to see if one of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsules could be used to raise the altitude of the Hubble Space Telescope, potentially further extending the lifetime of the 32-year-old instrument.

During a news conference, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said SpaceX had approached NASA several months ago with the idea. While he said the agency was willing to consider a proposal, he added that this was still a preliminary exploration. “I want to be absolutely clear,” Dr. Zurbuchen said. “We’re not making an announcement today that we definitely will go forward with a plan like this.”

After the Hubble reached orbit in 1990, it suffered blurry vision because its mirror had been ground to a slightly wrong shape. Astronauts fixed that problem during a space shuttle mission in 1993. After the fifth and last repair trip by NASA astronauts in 2009, the space shuttle Atlantis dropped Hubble off at an altitude of about 350 miles. In the 13 years since, the telescope has fallen by about 20 miles.

Repairs being made to the Hubble Space Telescope by astronauts on the space shuttle Endeavour in 1993.Credit…NASA

Hubble is not in immediate danger of falling out of the sky, but as it brushes against wisps of air, its orbit will continue to slowly and inexorably drop. By the end of the decade, the space telescope is likely to have dropped enough that NASA might have to make plans for how to guide its re-entry and destruction so that it would fall harmlessly into the ocean — unless someone could push it back up again.

That’s where SpaceX thinks it can come in, using Crew Dragon, the capsule that is now NASA’s primary ride for astronauts and cargo traveling to and from the International Space Station.

“What we want to do is expand the boundaries of current technology,” said Jessica Jensen, vice president of customer operations and integration at SpaceX. “We want to show how we use commercial partnerships as well as the public-private partnerships to creatively solve challenging and complex problem missions such as servicing Hubble.”

After his successful mission, called Inspiration4, to orbit last year, Mr. Isaacman announced Polaris, a follow-up collaboration with SpaceX that would make a series of flights to orbit to perform various technology demonstrations. The first mission, Polaris Dawn, which Mr. Isaacman said would launch toward the end of the first quarter of next year, is aiming to reach the highest altitude of any astronaut mission since the Apollo moon landings and to include the first private spacewalk.

A future Polaris mission, he said, could rendezvous with Hubble, nudge it higher up and perhaps perform other repairs and upgrades to the space telescope, which has experienced periodic outages because of technical glitches.

The cargo bay of a space shuttle was large enough to hold Hubble, which at 43.5 feet long and 14 feet wide is roughly the size of a school bus. The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, including the trunk portion that is jettisoned before the crew capsule returns to Earth, is smaller than Hubble, about 27 feet tall and 13 feet in diameter.

During the last shuttle mission to Hubble, astronauts installed a docking ring that was to help NASA take Hubble out of orbit when it needed to. The Crew Dragon might be able to link to the ring in order to raise the observatory’s orbit.

The next steps depend on what comes out of the feasibility study.

“We’re going to be looking at Dragon capabilities and how they would need to be modified in order to safely rendezvous and dock with Hubble,” Ms. Jensen said. “Details of exactly physically how that’s done and how we also safely do that from a trajectory point of view, that’s all to be worked out.”

Dr. Zurbuchen said that was worth pursuing. Some NASA experts will put in some time to work with SpaceX, but NASA is not paying SpaceX any money to explore the idea.

We’re working on crazy ideas all the time,” Dr. Zurbuchen said. “Frankly, that’s what we’re supposed to do.”

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