SpaceX studies extending the life of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope
NASA and SpaceX recently announced that they had signed a Space Act Agreement to study the possibility of reboosting and even servicing the Hubble Space Telescope with the Crew Dragon. It’s welcomed news for those who care about space exploration and science. Hubble has returned an incredible amount of scientific data, not to mention beautiful images, in the over 30 years it has scanned the heavens.
NASA designed the Hubble Telescope to be serviceable by the space shuttle. The decision was fortuitous when the Hubble’s mirror turned out to have a flaw in it soon after it was launched in 1990. The first shuttle service mission in 1993 fixed the flaw and implemented several other enhancements. In all, NASA performed five Hubble service missions, the last taking place in 2009, soon before the space shuttle program ended.
NASA had planned to use the Hubble as long as possible. According to Ars Technica, the space telescope’s orbit is slowly decaying.Three out of the Hubble’s six gyroscopeshave failed. NASA estimates that the Hubble Space Telescope will have to be retired in a controlled reentry at the end of the current decade.
The SpaceX Commercial Crew program, which replaced the space shuttle to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS), is in its third presidential administration. After suffering a bumpy start, thanks to Obama administration political missteps and congressional hostility, the initial Commercial Crew flights took place during the final year of the Trump administration. Currently, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is not only keeping the ISS staffed with astronauts, but it has also started to fly private flights, such as last year’s Inspiration4. The much-delayed Boeing Starliner is also scheduled to start launching to the ISS in 2023.
Against the backdrop of a successful commercial space industry, SpaceX and billionaire philanthropist Jared Isaacman made NASA an intriguing offer to study the possibility of sending a Crew Dragon to reboost and possibly service the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA and SpaceX signed an agreement to conduct a six-month study for just such a mission.
Isaacman already financed the Inspiration4 mission that raised an incredible amount of money for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. He has started a series of Crew Dragon missions called the Polaris Program, the first of which is scheduled to occur in March 2023. A future Polaris mission could visit the Hubble Space Telescope.
If NASA approves a Crew Dragon mission to the Hubble, the iconic space telescope could see 15 to 20 years added to its useful life. That is upwards of two decades more of useful science and mind-blowing images returned for scientific advancement and inspiration for the general public.
A private reboost and servicing mission to Hubble will have several challenges. The space telescope is a delicate instrument and any crew visiting it will have to be careful with it. The space shuttle crews that conducted Hubble servicing missions trained for many months to make sure they would not damage the space telescope. A private mission would entail some measure of risk.
Still, if SpaceX and NASA undertake a Hubble mission, the wisdom of commercializing space travel will have been proven once again. Commercial spacecraft are already keeping the ISS supplied and crewed at a fraction of the cost of NASA’s space shuttle. Extending the Hubble Space Telescope’s useful life by two decades for a fraction of a space shuttle servicing mission’s cost is a compelling notion.
Recently, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope successfully launched and deployed. The James Webb is already returning its own treasure trove of science and images. If the Hubble’s life is extended, the two telescopes can work in tandem. The Hubble can image celestial targets in the visible light spectrum. The James Webb can image the same targets in infrared. Together, the Hubble and James Webb telescopes can unlock the secrets of the universe.
Farther in the future, astronauts returning to the moon on private lunar landers such as the SpaceX Starship would be able to erect telescopes on the moon’s surface, starting with the Lunar Crater Radio Telescope. Such telescopes would become even greater windows through which humanity’s knowledge of the heavens can flow, expanding that knowledge and inciting awe and wonder.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.