West News Wire: To extend the life of the Hubble telescope, NASA and the SpaceX rocket firm will investigate the viability of running a commercial astronaut mission.
One of the greatest scientific instruments ever created, the orbiting observatory, is steadily losing height.
The telescope will eventually fall into the atmosphere and burn up if nothing is done to re-boost it.
NASA’s space shuttle carried out maintenance on Hubble five times, the last time being in 2009.
The telescope was then at a height of 540 km and has since descended by around 25 km.
NASA’s ideal goal is to raise the observatory back to its original 600 km altitude, where it was when it was launched in 1990.
This might give it an additional 20-30 years of life, although longevity would also be heavily dependent on the continued good operation of the telescope’s systems and, in particular, its four instruments.
Hubble has been a hugely productive astronomical tool. Over its career to date it has made more than 1.5 million observations, resulting in the publication of some 19,000 scholarly research papers.
Just this year, it has spied the single most distant star in the Universe; imaged the largest comet ever identified; and played a role in documenting this week’s crash into an asteroid by the Dart probe.
NASA launched its successor, the James Webb telescope, at the end of last year, but the hope has been that the pair could work together for many years to come.
The study will examine how Elon Musk’s company might send a commercial crew in one of its Dragon capsules to Hubble, not just to push the telescope higher in the sky but also to service some of its hardware.
Repair and upgrade work could include the replacement of the gyroscopes used to point the telescope at stars and galaxies and which have shown a tendency to fail over time.
“I want to be absolutely clear, we’re not making an announcement of a date, or that we’d definitely go forward with a plan like this. But we want to have a study to see really what would be feasible,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, the director of science at NASA.
Currently, SpaceX uses its Dragon capsules to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. But Jessica Jensen from SpaceX said Hubble would be a different proposition.
“It’s in a different orbit, different mass, they’re different vehicles. The details of proximity operations – that’s going to be a little bit different; it’ll all be unique to the telescope,” she told reporters.
“We’re just looking forward to studying what’s possible and what’s needed and working all this in coordination with NASA.”
One factor that would help Dragon is the “capture ring” attached to Hubble by the last shuttle mission in 2009.