Nasa and SpaceX have entered into an agreement to try and boost the orbit of the Hubble Space Telescope in order to extend its useful life.
Hubble orbits the Earth in the extremely tenuous upper atmosphere, and over time its orbit decays due to drag.
If not reboosted, it is estimated that it will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere sometime between 2028 and 2040, with the exact date depending on how active the Sun is and its impact on the upper atmosphere.
If Hubble were to descend in a completely uncontrolled re-entry, parts of the main mirror and its support structure would probably survive, leaving the potential for damage or even human fatalities.
In November 2021, Nasa extended the service contract for Hubble until June 2026.
SpaceX proposed the study to better understand the technical challenges associated with servicing missions. This study is non-exclusive, and other companies may propose similar studies with different rockets or spacecraft as their model.
“This study is an exciting example of the innovative approaches Nasa is exploring through private-public partnerships,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the science mission directorate at Nasa Headquarters in Washington.
“As our fleet grows, we want to explore a wide range of opportunities to support the most robust, superlative science missions possible.”
While Hubble and Dragon will serve as test models for this study, portions of the mission concept may be applicable to other spacecraft, particularly those in near-Earth orbit like Hubble.
“SpaceX and the Polaris Program want to expand the boundaries of current technology and explore how commercial partnerships can creatively solve challenging, complex problems,” said Jessica Jensen, a VP at SpaceX.
“Missions such as servicing Hubble would help us expand space capabilities to ultimately help all of us achieve our goals of becoming a space-faring, multiplanetary civilization.”
Nasa’s original plan for safely de-orbiting Hubble was to retrieve it using a Space Shuttle. Hubble would then have most likely been displayed in the Smithsonian Institution. This is no longer possible since the Space Shuttle fleet has been retired and would have been a tricky mission with high costs and risks to the crew.