Hubble May Be Getting New Visitors — SpaceX and Jared Isaacman

Hubble May Be Getting New Visitors — SpaceX and Jared Isaacman

The iconic Hubble Space Telescope, repaired and upgraded five times by astronauts on NASA’s space shuttle, may be getting another visit. Today NASA and SpaceX revealed they are studying whether it is possible to send astronauts back to Hubble one more time on a Crew Dragon. If so, billionaire Jared Issacman may use one of his three Polaris missions to do just that.

Emphasizing again and again that it is just a study, Isaacman and officials from NASA and SpaceX told reporters in a hastily-called media teleconference this afternoon they will spend six-months looking at the technical aspects of sending Dragon to Hubble.

The first question is whether Dragon could be used to boost Hubble’s orbit and extend its lifetime, but they will also look at whether it may be possible to service the telescope, replacing aging hardware as was done five times by NASA astronauts on the space shuttle.

Although it was launched 32 years ago, Hubble’s instruments and many of its systems are much younger than that and it continues to produce compelling science. Just this week it was used to image the effects of the impact of NASA’s DART spacecraft with the asteroid Dimorphos, capturing the increase in brightness from material ejected after the collision.

Image of ejecta from Dimorphos after impact with NASA’s DART spacecraft taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

Hubble is one of NASA’s most beloved spacecraft not only because of its textbook-shattering scientific revelations, but because it is a testament to the melding of human and robotic spaceflight. Launched in 1990 with a misformed mirror, astronauts aboard the space shuttle were able to install a corrective lens in 1993 that enabled Hubble to reveal mysteries of the universe. Four more visits in 1997, 1999, 2002 and 2009 repaired or replaced critical components and instruments, giving Hubble a new lease on life each time.

The space shuttle program ended in 2011 and Hubble’s systems have been aging since then as its orbit deteriorates from atmsopheric drag. Hubble’s project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Patrick Crouse, said at the briefing today that Hubble is orbiting at about 335 miles altitude, 45 miles lower than after the last shuttle servicing mission. Otherwise it is doing just fine, but without a boost, Hubble’s lifetime is limited. Crouse said NASA is looking at attaching a propulsion system by the end of the decade to safely steer it down.

But now, NASA and SpaceX have signed a Space Act Agreement to study what it would take to dock a Dragon spacecraft with Hubble. No exchange of funds is involved. The agreement just enables SpaceX and NASA experts to work together to determine what is possible.

SpaceX has considerable experience connecting both the crewed and uncrewed versions of Dragon — Crew Dragon and Cargo Dragon — with the International Space Station, but ISS has docking and berthing ports designed specifically for that purpose. Hubble does not. For the shuttle servicing missions, Hubble was captured using the space shuttle’s Canadian-built robotic arm and bought into the shuttle’s large cargo bay. Dragon does not have an arm or a cargo bay.

SpaceX’s Vice President for Customer Operations and Integration Jessica Jensen and NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen stressed again and again that for now it just a study. They are not announcing anything other than that at this time, but including Isaacman in the teleconference whetted imaginations.

Isaacman paid SpaceX an undisclosed sum last year to fly himself and three companions to earth orbit for three days on the world’s first entirely private astronaut mission to orbit, Inspiration4. Then in February he revealed that he purchased three more SpaceX flights, two on Crew Dragon and one on SpaceX’s new Starship.

At today’s briefing, he described all three flights as technology demonstration missions. The first, Polaris Dawn, with a crew of four, includes the first spacewalk by commercial astronauts and will reach an altitude higher than any other earth-orbiting human spaceflight mission.

The crew of Polaris Dawn, L-R: Jared Isaacman, Anna Menon, Sarah Gillis, Scott “Kidd” Poteet. Credit: Polaris Program Photos

Plans for the second flight are still in the formative stage and could be a visit to Hubble depending on the results of the SpaceX-NASA study.

Isaacman stressed that he is looking at the “broad applicability of these potential servicing missions to low earth orbit.”  However, if “the study takes us down a path where a mission [to Hubble] is possible, this would certainly fit within the kind of parameters we established for the Polaris program.”

As for SpaceX, Jensen said this is all part of Elon Musk’s vision of making humanity a spacefaring civilization.

“SpaceX and the Polaris Program want to expand the boundaries of current technology and explore how commercial partnerships can creatively solve challenging, complex problems. …. Missions such as servicing Hubble would help us expand space capabilities to ultimately help all of us achieve our goals of becoming a space-faring, multiplanetary civilization.”

From NASA’s perspective, Zurbuchen said it is “an exciting example of the innovative approaches NASA is exploring through public-private partnerships.”

But, importantly, he wants “to be absolutely clear we’re not making an announcement today that we definitely will go forward with a plan like this. We want to have a study to see what really would be feasible.”

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