enlarge / The crew of Polaris Dawn, from left: Scott Poteet, Jared Isaacman, Sarah Gillis and Anna Menon, pose in front of SpaceX’s Super Heavy rocket in South Texas.
John Kraus/Polaris Program
NASA announced Thursday that it plans to study the possibility of using SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle to lift the aging Hubble space telescope into higher orbit.
The federal agency has signed a “Space Act Agreement” with SpaceX to conduct a six-month study to determine the viability of Dragon docking with the 32-year-old telescope and launching it into higher orbit. . The research is not exclusive, meaning other companies may propose similar concepts with alternative rockets and spacecraft.
The agreement comes after SpaceX and the Polaris program — a series of private missions self-funded by billionaire Jared Isaacman — approached NASA about potential maintenance missions, including the Hubble Space Telescope. Isaacman is the first civilian to command an orbital spaceflight when he led a crew of four aboard SpaceX’s Dragon on the Inspiration4 mission in 2021. With Polaris he tries to push the boundaries of private space exploration outwards. The first Polaris mission is scheduled for March 2023 on Dragon and will fly to an altitude of 750 km while also conducting the first private spacewalks.
Benefit of a boost
It’s possible that this spacewalking experience could come in handy with Hubble and possibly the second Polaris mission.
Among the questions that the new Hubble study will answer is the cost of such a mission and its technical feasibility. Its main goal is to increase Hubble’s altitude from its current level of 535 km to 600 km, the same altitude it was when it was first launched in 1990. Since the fifth and final maintenance mission in 2009, Hubble has been slowly losing altitude, and this process is expected to accelerate as the telescope gets lower.
The telescope’s project manager, Patrick Crouse, said during a teleconference with reporters that NASA may need to launch a propulsion module to the telescope by the end of the 2020s. This would cause Hubble to make a controlled return to Earth’s atmosphere and land in the Pacific Ocean. A Dragon mission to increase Hubble’s height could add 15 or even 20 years of orbital life, Crouse said.
The study will also look at potential maintenance options, though nothing beats the detailed instrument replacements and major upgrades made during Hubble maintenance missions with NASA’s space shuttle. Rather, engineers from NASA and SpaceX will assess the feasibility of replacing the gyroscopes that control the telescope’s aiming. Only three of the spacecraft’s six gyroscopes are still operational.
None of the officials on Thursday’s conference call spoke specifically about the charges. No money will be traded for the study, but if there is a viable path forward for a Crew Dragon mission to dock with Hubble and bolster the instrument, that will have to be worked out. It seems likely that Isaacman will contribute a significant portion of the cost of the mission, as he did with Inspiration4 and the first Polaris Dawn mission. But if NASA wanted one or more of its astronauts to fly alongside Isaacman, it seems likely the agency would contribute some of the funding.
Long arc of history
This kind of private funding is far from unprecedented when it comes to space exploration. In his book The Long Space Age, space economist Alexander MacDonald notes that of the 38 U.S. astronomical observatories built in the 1800s and early 1900s, 36 were largely funded and operated through private funding.
“U.S. citizens, through corporate subscription campaigns and special philanthropy, funded the increasingly expensive technology required for the continued exploration of the sky for more than a century before NASA or the invention of the liquid-fueled rocket,” MacDonald wrote.
In the book, he argues that the future of space exploration may involve a similar level of private investment, both for business and philanthropic reasons.
The potential public-private mission is championed by the space agency’s chief science officer Thomas Zurbuchen, who said he welcomes commercial solutions to help NASA achieve its goals. “We’re looking at crazy ideas all the time, and that’s what we should be doing,” he said. “This one is really convincing.”
NASA will conduct the research and also consider solutions from other providers that are in the interest of taxpayers, he said. But it’s not clear that another crew vehicle would be able to service Hubble in the near future, and Hubble is running out of time. Each additional year means it descends further to Earth, making a re-boost less effective. For NASA, he said, the benefits are obvious. Hubble continues to provide the best optical view of the universe in the world, and taxpayers have spent more than $10 billion building and flying it. Zurbuchen wants to increase the value of that investment, especially with the potential to now combine Hubble observations with those from the James Webb Space Telescope in the infrared part of the spectrum.
“Hubble is an incredibly successful company,” Zurbuchen said. “It’s doing great science right now.”