A billionaire wanted to save the Hubble Telescope – this is why NASA politely refused

It has been 34 years since the Hubble Space Telescope launched into the harsh and unforgiving environment of Earth’s orbit. It is currently located about 320 miles (515 kilometers) above our planet, exposed to solar radiation, freezing temperatures and micrometeoroid impacts while delivering stunning and textbook-changing images the universe for us.

Thirty-four years old takes its toll under that kind of stress. Just earlier this week (June 4), NASA announced one of the Hubble Space TelescopeThe remaining three gyroscopes – which help scientists make sure the craft is pointing in the right direction – failed. The observatory will now switch to single-gyro mode, keeping the other gyroscopes still working as a reserve so there will be a backup option when the time comes. This plan is expected to keep Hubble alive until the mid-2030s. But what would happen next? Well, maybe the end of Hubble. Maybe not.

The thing is, Hubble’s orbit is getting very slowly lower and lower because time due to the atmospheric pull of our planet. It is also generally aging, and with age comes fatigue. This points to two paths for Hubble’s future. On one hand, scientists can take advantage of the observatory’s steady descent and perform a controlled reentry during which most (but not all) of the spacecraft will burn up in The Earth’s Atmosphere.

Related: A billionaire hopes to upgrade the Hubble telescope on a private SpaceX mission, but could it really happen?

Alternatively, scientists can boost Hubble to a higher orbit where it can rest for a while – potentially allowing enough time to decide whether a deeper servicing mission is possible, sort of like the old days. Which gives us the billionaire with an ambitious plan.

In 2022, Jared Isaacman, who financed and directed the Inspiration4 private all civil space launch and he wants to do the same with his The free Polaris program,, he announced a proposal to save Hubble with a commercial mission in collaboration with SpaceX. He was involved with NASA application for private companies to develop ideas about how to go about the Hubble booster route. The idea was considered and discussed at length (including a multi-month feasibility study) but, in short, NASA ultimately decided not to go for it.

“Our current position is that, having explored the current commercial capabilities, we are not going to pursue a booster,” said Mark Clampin, director of the Astrophysics Division and the Science Mission Directorate. agency at NASA Headquarters, during a June 4 conference updating the public on the status of the Hubble Telescope. “We appreciate the in-depth analysis that the NASA staff, SpaceX and the Polaris program, and our other potential partners. It certainly gave us a better insight into what will be done to develop commercial booster missions in the future.”

There’s been a lot of back and forth lately between Isaacman, space experts, journalists, and even the public when it comes to Hubble’s private servicing. Recently NPR an investigation that obtained internal NASA e-mails through a Freedom of Information Act request, for example, sparked debate as it revealed a variety of reactions among NASA officials to the idea. Isaacman himself has too he suggested that, if the plan wasn’t scrapped, politics might be to blame, as the NPR article also relates. But during the latest Hubble conference, we may have gained some of the clearest insight yet into the agency’s rationale.

The risks involved seem basically not worth taking at the moment, as Hubble is technically doing well. “We still believe it has very high reliability,” said Patrick Crouse, Hubble project manager at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said during the conference. “We can successfully operate Hubble doing cutting-edge science into the 20s and into the 2030s.”

Regarding those risks, Clampin explained what the aforementioned feasibility study found, including a premature loss of science and some technological challenges. It’s possible, Clampin said, that a mission like this could contaminate the telescope’s mirror. Because Hubble is an ultraviolet optical telescope, even small amounts of volatiles can get onto the mirror and threaten the observatory’s sensitivity. “We believe we need to do some additional work to determine whether the long-term scientific returns will outweigh the short-term scientific risks,” Clampin said.

A metallic spaceship above Earth.

A metallic spaceship above Earth.

It’s also worth noting, Clampin explained, that a commercial Hubble servicing mission would involve a new rendezvous, docking and unlocking procedure, a spacecraft that had never visited the telescope before and a new destination. This introduces many variables, and these ideas are indeed implicitly echoed by some of those emails obtained by NPR.

“The last time we went to Hubble, it was on the space shuttle, and it was a long time ago,” said Clampin. “And, of course, Hubble is now an old spacecraft; many of the people who were very involved in the missions who were serving early have retired and we have a lot of work to do to go back and know how to do it. that.”

Related Stories:

— NASA wants ideas to boost Hubble Space Telescope into higher orbit with private spacecraft

— How SpaceX’s private Polaris Dawn astronauts will attempt the 1st ever ‘all-civilian’ spacewalk

— SpaceX, NASA look to launch Dragon to service Hubble Space Telescope

All this is to say, however, that a commercial servicing mission is not out of the question for the future. As both presenters pointed out, it is probably better to do it delay a mission so dangerous until it’s absolutely necessary – and because Hubble is doing fine for the foreseeable future, it doesn’t seem absolutely necessary.

“There is a greater than 70% probability that at least one gyro will be operational through 2035,” Crouse said. “We currently have four instruments that are robust and very productive, and the reliability is expected to remain very high.

“So we don’t see that Hubble is on its last legs.”

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