NASA considers new plan to raise Hubble's orbit and extend its lifetime

A novel water propulsion system could raise the iconic telescope's orbit higher than it's ever been before.
Chris Young
Hubble in orbit.
Hubble in orbit.

NASA / Wikimedia 

Two startups have submitted a proposal that could extend the lifespan of the iconic Hubble Space Telescope, which has been in orbit for more than 30 years.

Hubble has faced numerous issues in recent months and years, including an outage caused by a malfunctioning payload computer in 2021.

Now, two startups, California-based Momentus Space and Tokyo-based Astroscale, have teamed up to provide a solution using novel water propulsion technology.

NASA seeks help with aging Hubble telescope

Hubble is currently experiencing a healthy, productive spell, having recently captured a range of images, including observations of NASA's planetary defense DART mission's target asteroid Dimorphos.

Though Hubble is currently in a healthy state, despite its hardware being decades old and running on a backup payload computer, it will eventually be brought back into Earth's atmosphere due to atmospheric drag.

At its current rate of orbital decay — Hubble's orbital height has fallen by approximately 18 miles (30 kilometers) since its launch in 1990 — experts estimate it will burn up in our atmosphere in the mid-to-late 2030s.

Knowing that Hubble's days are numbered, NASA issued a Request for Information (RFI) last year, calling on the private sector to develop the technology and methodology required to re-boost Hubble into a higher orbit.

SpaceX has expressed an interest, stating that its private Polaris Program missions, led by billionaire Jared Isaacman, could incorporate a rendezvous with Hubble that would presumably see a Crew Dragon spacecraft raise the telescope's orbit.

Now, Momentus Space and Astroscale have submitted their joint proposal, which would see them lift Hubble to a new orbit and remove any potentially damaging debris from that orbit.

Raising Hubble's orbit

This week, on Tuesday, May 9, Momentus Space announced that its Vigoride-5 spacecraft had successfully used an experimental water-propulsion system to lift its orbit by roughly 1.86 miles (3 kilometers).

"Even at 33, Hubble is fully capable of continuing its mission; where it is aging is in its orbital stability,” John Rood, Momentus chief executive officer, explained in a press statement. "I am thrilled that we collaborated to offer NASA a very cost-effective way to continue to operate this billion-dollar scientific investment by leveraging new robotic in-space servicing technology."

Astroscale, meanwhile, is developing an orbital debris removal service. The two companies hope to launch a Vigoride space tug to low Earth orbit. Once there, it would attempt to raise Hubble's orbit by roughly 30 miles (50 km), taking it higher than its original orbit. If they do this, Hubble could continue to add to its already-impressive legacy if its hardware continues to hold out.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board