SpaceX and NASA will study whether a privately funded mission could boost NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to a higher orbit, allowing the flagship science mission to continue another decade beyond its expected retirement.
The effort, announced today, could be accomplished “with little or no potential cost to the government,” according Jared Isaacman, a billionaire payments entrepreneur.
Isaacman is financing and participating in a series of test flights, called the Polaris Program, designed to prove out SpaceX’s ability to fly people in space, and servicing Hubble could be one of those missions. In 2021, Isaacman paid for a mission where he and three other passengers spent three days in orbit on SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft.
The Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990, and serviced most recently by a Space Shuttle mission in 2009. However, Earth’s gravity and atmosphere will inevitably pull the bus-sized telescope back to the planet, as soon as 2028 in worst-case scenarios. Without some effort to lift the telescope to a higher orbit, NASA will soon have to begin planning to safely bring it back down to Earth.
That’s where SpaceX comes in. The company approached NASA with the idea of using a Dragon to dock with the telescope and raise it from about 535 km above the planet, where it orbits now, to around 600 km. That might extend its life ten to twenty more years, according to Patrick Crouse, NASA’s Hubble project manager. It’s not clear how the Dragon would mate with the telescope; previous missions relied on the Space Shuttle’s robotic arm to grapple the Hubble into position.
For SpaceX, the mission would be an opportunity to test the capabilities of its spacecraft, spacesuits, and other technology while doing a favor for its most important customer. If successful, the company could find business servicing other large space telescopes or even raising the orbit of the International Space Station.
Now, NASA and SpaceX are planning a six month feasibility study of how such a mission would work, and whether it might include servicing components on the telescope as well as raising its orbit. No other companies were approached NASA officials said, but noted the agency could seek their input in the future. It went unsaid that few companies could offer to do the task so cheaply. No money is changing hands during the initial study.
The public-private-billionaire model of space activity
If a mission is approved, it would be the first time a private company has been hired by NASA to service an operational science mission. It’s not clear if the agency would allow it to proceed without an astronaut onboard; private passenger trips to the ISS currently require a former astronaut as a chaperone.
NASA has seen success with its public-private partnership model, which relies on private companies acting as service providers for the space agency while investing their own capital in the hopes of providing service to other customers. If the Dragon proves useful for raising the Hubble, it will be yet another benefit from NASA’s work with SpaceX.
However, a Polaris mission would present new wrinkles for the model. Rather than being financed and led by SpaceX, it would be financed and led by a private citizen who is neither an employee of the company nor the space agency. NASA officials said that it would be premature to weigh in on the logistical or legal details before the technical study is complete.
Before any potential Hubble mission, Isaacman and two SpaceX engineers, Sarah Gillis and Anna Menon, expect to fly a mission called Polaris Dawn in early 2023. Their plan is to test new spacesuits by exiting the Dragon capsule for a spacewalk in orbit, akin to the first extra-vehicular activities performed first by the Soviet Union and then NASA in 1965.