NASA and SpaceX have agreed to investigate the feasibility of awarding Elon Musk’s company a contract to raise the Hubble Space Telescope to a higher orbit in order to extend its lifespan, the US space agency announced Thursday.
Since 1990, the renowned observatory has been operating about 335 miles (540 kilometres) above Earth in a slowly decaying orbit.
Hubble lacks on-board propulsion to counteract the minor but persistent atmospheric drag in this region of space, and its altitude has previously been restored during Space Shuttle missions.
A SpaceX Dragon capsule would be used in the proposed new effort.
“A few months ago, SpaceX approached NASA with the idea of conducting a study to see if a commercial crew could help relaunch our Hubble spacecraft,” NASA’s chief scientist Thomas Zurbuchen told reporters, adding that the agency agreed to the study at no cost to itself.
He emphasised that there are currently no concrete plans to conduct or fund such a mission until the technical challenges are better understood.
One of the major challenges would be that, unlike the Space Shuttles, the Dragon spacecraft lacks a robotic arm and would require modifications for such a mission. The idea was proposed by SpaceX in collaboration with the Polaris Program, a private human spaceflight venture led by payments billionaire Jared Isaacman, who chartered a SpaceX Crew Dragon to orbit the Earth with three other private astronauts last year.
“This would certainly fit within the parameters we established for the Polaris programme,” Isaacman said when asked if reboosting Hubble could be a future Polaris mission goal.
When asked if there is a perception that the mission was designed to give wealthy people tasks to do in space, Zurbuchen said, “I think it’s only appropriate for us to look at this because of the tremendous value this research asset has for us.”
Hubble, arguably one of the most valuable instruments in scientific history, continues to make significant discoveries, including this year’s detection of Earendel, the farthest individual star ever seen, whose light took 12.9 billion years to reach us.
According to Patrick Crouse, Hubble Space Telescope project manager, it is currently expected to remain operational throughout this decade, with a 50% chance of de-orbiting in 2037.