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Home SCIENCE NASA studies whether SpaceX can visit the Hubble Space Telescope

NASA studies whether SpaceX can visit the Hubble Space Telescope

SpaceX and NASA agreed to find out whether or not a SpaceX spacecraft could visit and potentially breathe new life into the iconic Hubble Space Telescope. They announced that they would partner on a study that would investigate whether or not such a mission was possible.

The study will take about six months to complete and will involve NASA and SpaceX. It also involves the Polaris Program, a private human spaceflight effort funded by billionaire Jason Isaacman. Earlier this year, Isaacman purchased three flights into space on SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, a series of missions he calls Polaris.

It is not yet clear whether or not a trip to Hubble would require a crew.

It’s not yet clear whether or not a trip to Hubble would require a crew, whether SpaceX’s autonomous Dragon cargo-carrying capsules would be better for the job, or whether it’s possible for a SpaceX spacecraft to safely visit the telescope. There’s a batch of unknowns for this potential mission, which is probably why they’re starting with a study as a first step. The agreement is that NASA and SpaceX will specifically look at the “feasibility of an idea from the SpaceX and Polaris Program to propel the agency’s Hubble Space Telescope into higher orbit with the Dragon spacecraft, at no cost to the government.” according to a press release.

Hubble, located in low Earth orbit, has already been visited by spacecraft during its 32-year life. NASA’s space shuttle made five missions to Hubble to repair the telescope, upgrade its parts and increase its orbit. Since the last mission in 2009, Hubble’s orbit has slowly degraded as the telescope has grazed the outer edges of Earth’s atmosphere. It is now about 30 kilometers closer to Earth than it was in 2009. Boosting the telescope could help extend the life of the observatory.

NASA has no plans to revisit Hubble on its own. Panelists at the study announcement repeatedly emphasized that Hubble is still in good shape. Even without a new Hubble mission, the observatory is expected to last several more years. “Thanks to improvements from previous servicing missions, we expect Hubble to remain operational into the latter part of this decade, if not into the next,” said Patrick Crouse, project manager for the Hubble Space Telescope.

Boosting the telescope could help extend the life of the observatory

If the mission is feasible and is approved, it would give SpaceX a chance to flex its capabilities. Specifically, it would show that it can work on space technology that wasn’t designed with SpaceX in mind.

“SpaceX really sees the future in the sense that we are a space civilization. And that means there are spaceships flying everywhere. There’s resupply in orbit. There are space stations from various companies,” said Jessica Jensen, vice president of operations and customer integration for SpaceX. “Missions like this where companies are learning to adapt and figure out ways to communicate with older vehicles… I think that’s an amazing capability and that’s how the industry needs to move forward.”

Although Hubble has been somewhat overshadowed lately by incredible images from NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, it continues to produce amazing images of the universe. In March, it detected the oldest known star, and just this week, it took a few Incredible views of the DART mission, which sent a spacecraft on a collision course with an asteroid.

“Hubble is incredibly successful. It is healthy; it’s doing great science right now,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “The data collected from this study is another tool in humanity’s toolbox that we can use to support future science missions and keep Hubble at the forefront of scientific discovery.”

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