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NASA and SpaceX study a mission to boost the Hubble telescope

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is old and, after more than 30 years in space, somewhat worn and tired. It was eclipsed recently by the new James Webb Space Telescope, which is bigger, more powerful and returns images of the universe that have astronomers drooling.

But NASA says there’s even more life in Hubble, which, by helping to confirm the accelerating expansion of the universe, contributed to research that won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics. a car owner trying to squeeze in to the last mile, NASA would like the telescope to work for as long as it takes, but it slowly and steadily falls back to Earth. When it was last serviced by NASA astronauts in 2009, it was at an altitude of about 350 miles. Today it sits 332 miles away and at some point – possibly by 2037, according to NASA estimates – it will re-enter and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

So when SpaceX recently approached NASA and offered to boost the telescope to a higher altitude and extend its lifespan, NASA was intrigued.

On Thursday, NASA and SpaceX announced that they would study whether such a mission was even feasible. In some ways, this is another partnership between the space agency and SpaceX, as NASA seeks to leverage the growing capabilities of the commercial space sector to pursue its exploration and science goals. Elon Musk’s company is already delivering supplies and even NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

But the Hubble mission, if it were to come to fruition, would represent a new dynamic, made possible by the fact that SpaceX has already sold several spaceflight missions to a billionaire tech entrepreneur eager to push the envelope.

Last year, Jared Isaacman, the founder of payment processing company Shift4 Payments, ordered a flight from SpaceX that took him and three other private citizens into space for three days, making them the first all-civilian crew to reach orbit. Now Isaacman is paying for three more flights, each designed to enter new territory under what he calls the Polaris program.

The first, scheduled for March, is to send another crew of private citizens further than any other manned spaceflight mission since Apollo. This mission would also involve the first spacewalk by a civilian astronaut.

In preparing for the March flight, Isaacman had been silent about what the second trip would entail. On Thursday, however, he made it clear he wanted to send a civilian crew to move Hubble into a higher orbit. And he said it could be accomplished with “little or no potential cost to government”.

For NASA, however, the proposition is a bit tricky. He can’t just assign a mission to SpaceX or Isaacman, even if it costs the government nothing. Federal procurement rules say there must be competition to provide such services, which is why agency officials stressed that studying Isaacman’s proposal is just that — a study. . NASA and SpaceX said they would explore over the next six months how the company’s Dragon spacecraft would dock with the telescope, what kind of modifications would need to be made, or even if the mission could be performed autonomously. without any crew on board.

“NASA is not expected to conduct or fund a maintenance mission or contribute to this opportunity; the study is designed to help the agency understand commercial opportunities,” NASA said in a statement.

He added that the study “is not exclusive and other companies may offer similar studies with different rockets or spacecraft as a model.”

Since Hubble launched in 1990, NASA has sent five servicing missions to the telescope. The first was undertaken in 1993 to correct a problem with Hubble’s primary mirror that was affecting the clarity of the images it returned. But when the space shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA had no way of getting back to Hubble and accepted that its beloved telescope would eventually die.

Now, however, not only does NASA have SpaceX, which has a record of successfully docking with the space station, but there’s also a whole new industry beginning to emerge to repair and refuel satellites in space, infusing a new life to what would otherwise become coins. scrap in orbit.

In 2020, for example, a Northrop Grumman-built spacecraft latched onto a communications satellite operated by Intelsat that was running out of fuel. Once attached, Northrop’s spacecraft essentially became a tow truck, taking over propulsion of the satellite and ensuring it maintains the correct orbit and orientation.

If SpaceX or another company can raise Hubble about 40 miles, it could “easily add 15 to 20 years of orbital life to the mission,” Patrick Crouse, the Hubble Space Telescope’s project manager, said Thursday.

For more than three decades, Hubble “has provided us with clear, detailed views that reach further into space and further into time than any of its predecessors. Hubble observations have charted the evolution of galaxies, stars, nebulae, cometsthe outer planetsand their moons, ” NASA says.

Yes, the Webb Telescope is 1 million miles from Earth and is capable of looking back 13.5 billion years to the dawn of the universe. But Webb was never meant to replace Hubble, according to the space agency.

“The goal is for the two telescopes to operate at the same time to conduct joint observations for several years,” NASA said.

The only option NASA has to extend the life of Hubble is to turn to the private sector.

“As we move forward and examine the emerging commercial market, we still want to examine all possible opportunities to achieve NASA’s science goals,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, chief science mission director at NASA. “Commercial partnerships, we learned, open the door to exciting new opportunities for natural scientific exploration by providing new ideas and innovative ways to support them.”