NASA and SpaceX have agreed to study the feasibility of awarding Elon Musk’s company a contract to boost the Hubble Space Telescope into a higher orbit, with the aim of extending its lifespan, the agency announced Thursday. US space agency.
The famous observatory has operated since 1990 about 335 miles (540 kilometers) above Earth, in an orbit that slowly decays over time.
Hubble has no onboard propulsion to counter the small but ever-present atmospheric drag in this region of space, and its altitude has already been restored during Space Shuttle missions.
The proposed new effort would involve a SpaceX Dragon capsule.
“A few months ago, SpaceX approached NASA with the idea of a study to find out if a commercial crew could help reboost our Hubble spacecraft,” NASA chief scientist Thomas Zurbuchen told reporters. journalists, adding that the agency accepted the study at no cost to itself.
He pointed out that there are currently no concrete plans to conduct or fund such a mission until the technical challenges are better understood.
One of the main obstacles would be that the Dragon spacecraft, unlike space shuttles, does not have a robotic arm and would need modifications for such a mission.
SpaceX came up with the idea in partnership with the Polaris program, a private human spaceflight venture run by payments billionaire Jared Isaacman, which last year chartered a SpaceX Crew Dragon to orbit Earth with three other astronauts. private.
“It would certainly fit within the parameters we’ve established for the Polaris program,” Isaacman said in response to a question about whether reviving Hubble could be the goal of a future Polaris mission.
Asked by a reporter if there might be a perception that the mission was designed to give wealthy people jobs in space, Zurbuchen said: “I think it’s only fair that we We were looking at this because of the enormous value this research asset has for us.”
Arguably one of the most valuable instruments in scientific history, Hubble continues to make important discoveries, including this year detecting the most distant individual star ever seen, Earendel, whose light put 12.9 billions of years to reach us.
It is currently expected to remain operational throughout this decade, with a 50% chance of deorbiting in 2037, said Hubble Space Telescope project manager Patrick Crouse.