A billionaire wanted to save the Hubble telescope – this is why NASA politely declined

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

Thirty-four years under that kind of stress takes its toll. Earlier this week (June 4), NASA announced one of the following Hubble Space TelescopeThe company’s three remaining gyroscopes — which help scientists ensure the spacecraft is pointing in the right direction — failed. The observatory will now switch to single-gyro mode, leaving the other working gyro in reserve so that there is a backup option to fall back on 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 point is that Hubble’s orbit is very slowly getting lower and lower time passes due to the atmospheric resistance of our planet. It also generally just gets old, and with age comes some fatigue. This presents two paths for Hubble’s future. On the 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. the Earth’s atmosphere.

Related: A billionaire hopes to upgrade the Hubble Telescope during a private SpaceX mission, but could that really happen?

Or scientists could move Hubble to a higher orbit where it can rest for a while – potentially giving time to decide whether a more in-depth servicing mission can be conducted. a bit like the old days. That brings us to the billionaire with an ambitious plan.

In 2022, Jared Isaacman, who launched the Inspiration4 completely civil private room launch and wants to do the same with his Polaris program, announced a proposal to save Hubble with a commercial mission in partnership with SpaceX. It was associated with NASA’s request for private companies to develop ideas on how to follow the Hubble boost route. The idea was indeed extensively considered and discussed (including a feasibility study lasting several months), but in short, NASA ultimately decided not to go for it.

“Our position at this time is that, after exploring current commercial options, we will not pursue a revival,” said Mark Clampin, director of the Astrophysics Division and Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, during a June 4 conference about updating the data. public about the status of the Hubble Telescope. “We really appreciate the in-depth analysis of the organization NASA team, SpaceX and Polaris program, and our other potential partners. It has certainly given us a better understanding of the considerations for developing future commercial reboost missions.”

There’s been quite a bit of back and forth lately between Isaacman, space experts, journalists and even the public when it comes to privately operating Hubble. A recent one NPR For example, an investigation that obtained internal NASA emails through a Freedom of Information Act request sparked debate as it revealed a variety of reactions NASA officials had to the idea. Isaacman himself has done that too suggested thatIf the plan were to fail, politics could be to blame, as the NPR article also notes. But at the latest Hubble conference we got perhaps the clearest insight into the agency’s reasoning yet.

It seems like the risks involved aren’t necessarily worth it at this point, since Hubble is technically doing just fine. “We still believe it has very high reliability,” said Patrick Crouse, Hubble’s project manager at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said at the conference. “We can exploit Hubble very successfully, doing groundbreaking science for the remainder of the 2020s and into the 2030s.”

In terms of these risks, Clampin explained what the aforementioned feasibility study found, including 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 land on the mirror and threaten the observatory’s sensitivity. “We believe we need to do some additional work to determine whether the long-term scientific rewards will outweigh the short-term scientific risks,” Clampin said.

A metal spacecraft above Earth.

A metal spacecraft above Earth.

It’s also worth noting, Clampin explained, that a commercial Hubble servicing mission would involve a new rendezvous, docking and unloading procedure, a spacecraft that has never visited the telescope before, and a new destination. This introduces a lot of variables, and these thoughts do indeed reflect what some of those emails obtained by NPR implied.

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

Related stories:

– NASA wants ideas to lift the Hubble Space Telescope into a higher orbit using private spacecraft

– How SpaceX’s private Polaris Dawn astronauts will undertake the first ever ‘fully civilian’ spacewalk

– SpaceX and NASA are considering launching Dragon for the Hubble Space Telescope

All this is to say, however, that a commercial service mission is not out of the question for the future. As both presenters emphasized, it’s probably best to just do it delay such a risky mission until it is absolutely necessary – and since Hubble is doing quite well for the foreseeable future, it does not appear to be absolutely necessary.

“There is a greater than 70% chance that at least one gyroscope will be in use by 2035,” Crouse said. “We currently have four instruments that have been robust and highly productive, and reliability is expected to remain very high.

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

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