NASA's Hubble Space Telescope was launched to orbit by Space Shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990. It has been taking stunning photographs of the universe for around thirty-three years. An entire generation knows what galaxies and other cosmic objects look like thanks to the telescope's high-definition imagery. Hubble has made over 1.3 million observations that have led to important discoveries that help scientists learn about our Solar System and the Universe's existence as a whole.
When it was launched in 1990, the Hubble was expected to have a lifespan of 15 years and NASA sent multiple Space Shuttle servicing missions to double its lifespan. However, the telescope's altitude is slowly decreasing due to atmospheric drag. Scientists predict that Hubble could reenter Earth's atmosphere in the mid-to-late 2030s. Atmospheric drag affects the orbits of satellites in low-Earth orbit.
NASA and SpaceX signed an unfunded Space Act Agreement on Thursday, September 22, to study the possibility of boosting the altitude of the Hubble Space Telescope by docking with a Dragon spacecraft. Moving the telescope into a higher orbit would extend its operational lifespan. As part of the agreement, SpaceX's Polaris Program will collect technical data about Hubble and Crew Dragon for six months to determine whether it is possible to "safely rendezvous, dock, and move the telescope into a more stable orbit," said NASA.
If they determine that it is possible, SpaceX would launch the Polaris Program crew aboard Dragon to move the telescope into a higher orbit. "The Hubble has been operating since 1990, about 335 miles above Earth in an orbit that is slowly decaying over time. Reboosting Hubble into a higher, more stable orbit could add multiple years of operations to its life," said the agency in a press release on September 29. Though, NASA will not pay for the study with government funding, it will be privately-funded by the Polaris Program. "There are no plans for NASA to conduct or fund a servicing mission or compete this opportunity; the study is designed to help the agency understand the commercial possibilities," said the agency.
The Polaris Program is led by SpaceX Inspiration4 astronaut and Shift4 Payments founder Jared Isaacman, who is funding the program to test SpaceX technologies during three future spaceflights. “Polaris is excited to assist in this study and hopefully it leads us down a path that ensures Hubble continues to service science for decades into the future,” said Isaacman. Listen to the full press conference in the video linked below.
The first Polaris Program mission aims to achieve the highest Earth orbit ever flown by humans since astronauts last visited the moon half a century ago. If changing Hubble's altitude is technically feasible, the company could potentially do it during this planned high-altitude space voyage. “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, vice president of Customer Operations & Integration 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.”
The Polaris Dawn crew members are currently training to conduct the first commercial spacewalk outside of Crew Dragon and test SpaceX's new extravehicular activity (EVA) spacesuits. They will also test SpaceX's Starlink laser-based satellite communication in orbit. The first mission is scheduled for 2023. Isaacman booked two spaceflights aboard Dragon and another spaceflight to test technologies aboard SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft that is actively under development.
VIDEO: NASA, SpaceX, & Polaris Program representatives discuss partnership to study the potential of boosting Hubble Space Telescope's altitude
Featured Images Source: NASA
About the Author
Evelyn Janeidy Arevalo
Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.