NASA and SpaceX explore using Dragon to send Hubble back to its initial position
The Hubble Space Telescope could one day be serviced by a private SpaceX spacecraft called Dragon, according to an article published by Space.com on Thursday.
A new feasibility study
NASA revealed that it's conducting a joint study with SpaceX to look into sending a Dragon capsule to Hubble, despite the fact that it has currently put production of the crafts on hold.
"We want to benefit Hubble. And if benefiting Hubble means not just boosting it but also providing some servicing, and that can be done with a human spaceflight mission, all the better," Jessica Jensen, vice president of customer operations and integration at SpaceX, said during a press conference today. "So, it's all on the table."
However, before you get too excited, it should be noted that no SpaceX mission to Hubble is currently in the pipeline. The news refers to a feasibility study, which is expected to last six months and is not funded by NASA. The agency is participating via an unfunded Space Act Agreement.
"We're going to be looking at Dragon capabilities and how they would need to be modified to safely rendezvous and dock with Hubble," Jensen said. "Details of exactly physically how that's done, and how we also safely do that from a trajectory point of view — that's all to be worked out."
Jensen further added that a Dragon Hubble mission wouldn't necessarily need to be crewed. The study might point the way to an uncrewed mission with Dragon or even a different aircraft.
An orbit derailed
Hubble is in a good state at the moment but its orbit has been derailed a little over the past 33 years due to atmospheric drag. The telescope currently travels around Earth at an altitude of about 335 miles (540 kilometers), roughly 38 miles (60 km) lower than its initial orbit.
Patrick Crouse, Hubble project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said during Thursday’s briefing that at this rate, Hubble has a 50 percent chance of crashing back to Earth in 2037.
To avoid such a dire consequence, NASA has plans to deorbit Hubble in a controlled manner when it stops functioning. This development will see the launch of a robotic mission to the telescope to haul it down safely and should take place by the end of the 2020s, Crouse said.
However, successfully undertaking an orbit boost to get Hubble back to its initial altitude of 373 miles (600 km) could allow the observatory to keep working for much longer. "You'd add easily 15 to perhaps 20 years of orbit life to the mission if you could achieve that altitude," Crouse explained.
If the feasibility study works out, we could see the Polaris Program, three SpaceX missions spearheaded by billionaire Jared Isaacman, become the means for a successful orbit boost for Hubble. After all, who wouldn’t want to see the telescope continue on its wondrous journey of beaming back data and images that help us comprehend the many mysteries of our universe?