NASA and SpaceX explore idea of shifting Hubble to a more stable orbit
The Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990 with an expected lifespan of around 15 years, but servicing missions and upgrades have seen it continue to gather important science observations to this day. NASA is now exploring how it can remain operational even further into the future with the help of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which might be used to dock with the telescope and shift it to a more stable orbit.
Hubble currently orbits the Earth at an altitude of around 335 miles (540 km), though this is decreasing slowly due to atmospheric drag. Plans call for a propulsion module to eventually be attached to the telescope for a controlled re-entry and splashdown in the ocean, or to send Hubble into a higher orbit to keep it operational.
But SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft presents another possibility. The commercial space company has today signed an agreement with NASA that commits the pair to a feasibility study, exploring how the spacecraft could safely rendezvous with Hubble, dock with it, and shift it into a more stable orbit.
"This study is an exciting example of the innovative approaches NASA is exploring through private-public partnerships,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “As our fleet grows, we want to explore a wide range of opportunities to support the most robust, superlative science missions possible.”
The study is expected to take up to six months and will see technical data collected on both Hubble and Dragon to determine the viability of the mission. NASA believes that parts of this type of approach could also be applied to other spacecraft in low-Earth orbit.