NASA’s plan to save Hubble (By Flying a SpaceX Craft Into It)

NASA is working with SpaceX and the Polaris Program to see if a Dragon spacecraft could be used to move the Hubble Space Telescope into a higher orbit. This would make the telescope last longer.

Since it was put into space in April 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has become a very important scientific tool. So far, it has taken more than 1.5 million pictures of the sky and helped scientists write more than 19,000 scientific papers.

The legendary telescope can’t just keep looking up into the sky forever. Hubble’s age is starting to show. Over the past 30 years, the reliable observatory has had a number of hardware and software problems. The most serious ones were involved in daring servicing missions during the shuttle era.

But even with these problems, it is still a great tool for astronomers trying to figure out how the universe works. 
“After more than 32 years, Hubble is still very useful for science and has unique ways to look into the unknowns of the universe,” said Hubble Telescope project manager Patrick Crouse at a press conference held jointly by NASA and SpaceX. “Using these unique skills together with those of the James Webb Space Telescope makes both missions more productive than they would have been if they had worked alone.”

Hubble’s slowing orbit is one of the main things that limit how long it will last. Hubble was put into a stable 380-mile-high orbit when it was launched in 1990. But over the past 32 years, drag from the atmosphere has pulled the telescope down into a lower orbit, just 335 miles above the Earth’s surface. According to the most recent predictions, Hubble has a 50/50 chance of burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere sometime in 2037.

A Fresh Start 

Hubble might get a second chance, though, if a new study turns out well. NASA recently announced a new partnership, or Space Act Agreement, with SpaceX and the Polaris Program. Together, they will look into the possibility of using a Dragon spacecraft to fix the Hubble Space Telescope’s orbit, which is getting worse.

This would be a hard thing to do. Figuring out how to get two spaceships to meet up in low-Earth orbit is hard at the best of times, but it’s become more common in modern spaceflight because the International Space Station needs to change its crew every few months.

Scientists will also need to find a way to modify the Dragon spacecraft so it can dock safely with the telescope and figure out how to use its thrusters to raise Hubble’s orbit without putting its sensitive instruments at risk.

The Soft Capture Mechanism, which was put on Hubble’s back wall during the last shuttle servicing mission in 2009, could be the key to safely docking the two spacecraft. This ring-like addition was made so that a robot could grab onto the observatory and pull it out of orbit in a controlled way. But it could also be a way to make Hubble live longer.

The 6-month feasibility study will also look at whether such a mission could fix the telescope by, for example, replacing some of the gyroscopes that help Hubble stay steady while it looks at faraway stars and galaxies.

NASA’s plan to save Hubble

In an ideal situation, NASA and SpaceX would try to get Hubble back to its original orbit of 380 miles above Earth. This would give Hubble a much longer scientific life and let it work with the James Webb Space Telescope to look at the same things.

NASA wants to make it clear that the agreement with SpaceX is just a feasibility study to look for business opportunities. It has not been decided to go ahead with a servicing mission. It is also not paying SpaceX or the Polaris Program to do their part of the research. 
But if the study’s results are good, Hubble’s scientific career could be extended.

Even though Hubble and Dragon will be the focus of the new study, its results could be used to help plan future missions that need to fix a spacecraft or send it into a higher orbit.

Jessica Jensen, Vice President of Customer Operations and Integration at SpaceX, said, “SpaceX and the Polaris Program want to push the limits of current technology and see how commercial partnerships can be used creatively to solve hard complex problems.” “Missions like taking care of Hubble would help us build up our space capabilities, which would help us all achieve our goal of becoming a multi-planet, space-faring civilization.”

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