SpaceX

SpaceX is studying the possibility of boosting the Hubble Space Telescope's altitude to extend its lifespan, NASA invites interested companies to participate in the study

SpaceX is studying the possibility of boosting the Hubble Space Telescope's altitude to extend its lifespan, NASA invites interested companies to participate in the study

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope (HST) 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 the Universe. When it was launched the Hubble was expected to have a lifespan of 15 years and NASA sent multiple Space Shuttle servicing missions that helped double its lifespan. However, the telescope's altitude is slowly decreasing due to atmospheric drag. Scientists predict that it could reenter Earth's atmosphere in the mid-to-late 2030s. 

On December 22, NASA published a Request For Information (RFI) inviting aerospace companies to participate in a study to boost the Hubble Space Telescope’s altitude in order to extend its lifespan. “Partner(s) would be expected to participate and undertake this mission on a no-exchange-of-funds basis,” wrote the agency in the RFI. The interested companies will submit an application detailing how they would move Hubble into a higher operational orbit. Companies are asked to provide technical information and mission-related resources, including: “the launch vehicle, spacecraft, crew if applicable to the approach, and mission operations [...] necessary to successfully perform the demonstration,” says the agency. The deadline to submit their ideas is January 24, 2023. 

This RFI was published 3 months after SpaceX suggested to NASA the idea of extending the telescope’s lifespan by raising its orbit. On September 22, NASA and SpaceX signed an unfunded Space Act Agreement to study the possibility of boosting the altitude of the Hubble Space Telescope by docking with a Dragon spacecraft.  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. Since the agreement was signed, SpaceX and NASA have been working on the study, however, they have not released any details about their plans.

If they determine that changing the Hubble's altitude is possible, SpaceX will task the Polaris Program crew to move the telescope into a higher orbit during a future mission. "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 agency representatives. Though NASA will not pay for the study with government funding, it will be privately-funded by the Polaris Program. 

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. 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.”

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Featured Image Source: NASA

About the Author

Evelyn Janeidy Arevalo

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.

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