NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has been orbiting all by its lonesome since the final servicing mission in 2009, but it might get some company soon. NASA and SpaceX have signed an unfunded Space Act Agreement to explore the possibility of sending a Crew Dragon spacecraft to push the aging telescope into a higher orbit. If such a mission is determined to be workable, it could extend the life of the iconic observatory by years.
Hubble was launched more than 30 years ago, and while it had a rocky start, NASA improved the observatory’s optics and unlocked a window to the wider universe. Even though the James Webb Space Telescope is now online and doing some amazing science, Hubble remains one of the most powerful telescopes in humanity’s arsenal. It seems a shame to let that capability slip away as Hubble drifts ever closer to atmospheric reentry, which will happen in about 10 years if nothing is done.
That’s where SpaceX comes in. With support from billionaire commercial astronaut Jason Isaacman and his Polaris Program, SpaceX will study the possibility of using a Dragon capsule to push Hubble into a higher orbit. It is currently circling Earth at an altitude of 332 miles (535 kilometers), putting it on target to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere in the mid-2030s. The primary goal of such a mission would be to take Hubble back up to 372 miles (600 kilometers), where it was at the start of the mission. NASA believes a plan that could accomplish that would give Hubble another 15 or 20 years of life.
Simply getting Hubble into a better orbit would be a boon for science, but that’s easier said than done. The Crew Dragon was designed to dock with the International Space Station, not a space telescope from the early 90s. The plan might involve using a capture mechanism from the final Shuttle missions to grab the observatory. NASA is also not ruling out a plan to perform maintenance on the aging spacecraft, which has suffered a spate of hardware failures in recent years. However, the agency doesn’t expect a commercial operation like the one being proposed will be able to match the complexity of missions completed by Space Shuttle crews.
It will take about six months to complete the study, at which time NASA will determine if and how it will proceed. The study opportunity is non-exclusive, and other firms are welcome to submit their own proposals for a similar mission. SpaceX does have impressive human spaceflight capabilities right now, but it has yet to complete any sort of satellite reboost mission. Some aerospace companies, like Northrop Grumman, have successfully reboosted satellites with uncrewed spacecraft.
Source by www.extremetech.com