NASA announced Thursday that it plans to study the possibility of using SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle to boost the aging Hubble Space Telescope into a higher orbit.
The federal agency has signed a “Space Act Agreement” with SpaceX to conduct a six-month study to determine the practicability of Dragon docking with the 32-year-old telescope and boosting it into a higher orbit. The study is not exclusive, meaning that other companies can propose similar concepts with alternative rockets and spacecraft.
The agreement comes after SpaceX and the Polaris Program—a series of private missions self-funded by billionaire Jared Isaacman—approached NASA about potential servicing missions including the Hubble Space Telescope. Isaacman is the first private citizen to command an orbital spaceflight, when he led a crew of four aboard SpaceX’s Dragon in 2021 on the Inspiration4 mission. With Polaris he is seeking to push the boundaries of private space exploration outward. The first Polaris mission is scheduled for March 2023 on Dragon, and will fly to an altitude of 1,400 km while also conducting the first private spacewalks.
Benefit of a boost
It is possible this spacewalking experience could come in handy with Hubble, and potentially the second Polaris mission.
Among the questions the new Hubble study will answer is the cost of such a mission, and its technical feasibility. The principal goal is to boost Hubble’s altitude from its current level of 535 km to 600 km, the same altitude it was at when first launched in 1990. Since the fifth and final servicing mission in 2009, Hubble has slowly been losing altitude, and this process is expected to accelerate as the telescope gets lower.
The telescope’s project manager, Patrick Crouse, said during a teleconference with reporters that in absence of a re-boost mission, NASA might have to launch a propulsion module to the telescope by the end of the 2020s. This would ensure Hubble makes a controlled reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, and lands in the Pacific Ocean. A Dragon mission to boost Hubble’s altitude could add 15 or even 20 years of orbital lifetime, Crouse said.
The study will also look at potential servicing options, although nothing like the detailed instrument replacements and major upgrades performed during Hubble servicing missions with NASA’s space shuttle. Rather, engineers from NASA and SpaceX will assess the feasibility of replacing the gyroscopes that control the pointing of the telescope. Only three of the spacecraft’s six gyroscopes remain in working order.
None of the officials on Thursday’s teleconference spoke specifically about costs. No funds will exchange hands for the study, but if there is a viable path forward for a Crew Dragon mission to dock with Hubble and boost the instrument, that will have to be worked out. It seems likely that Isaacman will contribute a significant portion of the mission’s cost, as he has done with Inspiration4 and the initial Polaris Dawn mission. But if NASA wanted one or more of its astronauts to fly alongside Isaacman, it seems probable that the agency would contribute a portion of the funding.
Long arc of history
This kind of private funding is far from unprecedented when it comes to space exploration. In his book The Long Space Age, space economist Alexander MacDonald notes that of 38 US astronomical observatories built in the 1800s and early 1900s, 36 were funded and operated largely through private financing.
“American citizens, through collective subscription campaigns and singular philanthropy, privately funded the increasingly expensive technology required for the continue exploration of the heavens for over a century before NASA or the invention of the liquid-fueled rocket,” MacDonald wrote.
In the book, he argues that the future of space exploration may involve a similar level of private investment, both for business and philanthropic reasons.
The potential public-private mission is being championed by the space agency’s chief of science, Thomas Zurbuchen, who said he welcomes commercial solutions to help NASA achieve its goals. “We’re looking at crazy ideas all the time, and that’s what we’re supposed to do,” he said. “This one is really compelling.”
NASA will conduct the study, and also consider solutions from other providers that are in the interest of taxpayers, he said. But it’s not clear that another crew vehicle would be capable of servicing Hubble in the near future, and Hubble is running out of time. Every extra year means it descends further toward Earth, making a re-boost less effective. For NASA, he said, the benefits are clear. Hubble continues to provide the best optical view of the universe in the world, and taxpayers have spent more than $10 billion building and flying it. Zurbuchen wants to extend the value of that investment, especially with the potential to now pair Hubble observations alongside those of the James Webb Space Telescope in the infrared portion of the spectrum.
“Hubble is an amazingly successful,” Zurbuchen said. “It’s doing great science as we speak.”