NASA politely declined because a billionaire wanted to save the Hubble Telescope

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It’s been 34 years since the Hubble Space Telescope launched into the harsh and unforgiving environment of Earth orbit.
Just earlier this week (June 4), NASA announced one of the Hubble Space Telescope’s three remaining gyroscopes — which help scientists make sure the craft is pointing in the correct direction — has failed.
This presents two paths for Hubble’s future.
Related: A billionaire hopes to upgrade the Hubble Telescope on a private SpaceX mission, but could it really happen?
It’s certainly given us better insight into considerations for developing future commercial reboost missions.”
“We can operate Hubble very successfully doing groundbreaking science through the rest of the 20s and into the 2030s.”
Because Hubble is an ultraviolet optical telescope, even small amounts of volatiles can get on the mirror and threaten the observatory’s sensitivity.
This is all to say, though, that a commercial servicing mission is not out of the question for the future.

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The Hubble Space Telescope has been in Earth orbit for thirty-four years, during which time it has faced many challenges. Currently perched approximately 320 miles (515 kilometers) above Earth, it is subject to solar radiation, subfreezing temperatures, and micrometeoroid impacts while providing us with amazing and paradigm-shifting views of the cosmos.

It wears on you after thirty-four years of that kind of pressure. NASA recently revealed on June 4 that one of the Hubble Space Telescope’s three surviving gyroscopes, which aid in ensuring that the spacecraft is pointed in the right direction, had malfunctioned. With the other functional gyroscope kept in reserve, the observatory will now operate in single-gyroscope mode, giving it a fallback when necessary. Hubble should last until the middle of the 1930s under this plan. However, what would come next? Well, maybe Hubble’s demise. Or maybe not.

The problem is that, due to the drag of our planet’s atmosphere, Hubble’s orbit is gradually lowering over time. In addition, age generally brings with it a certain amount of fatigue. Two options are thus presented for Hubble’s future. On the one hand, researchers can use the observatory’s gradual descent to execute a controlled reentry, during which the majority of the spacecraft—though not all of them—will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Related: Could a billionaire’s dream of upgrading the Hubble Telescope on a private SpaceX mission actually come true?

Or, in a throwback to the past, scientists could launch Hubble into a higher orbit where it can rest for a while, giving researchers enough time to assess whether a more comprehensive servicing mission is feasible. This brings us to the billionaire who has a big idea.

In 2022, Jared Isaacman—who led and provided funding for the Inspiration4 all-civilian private space launch and hopes to accomplish the same with his Polaris program—announced a plan to work with SpaceX on a commercial mission to save Hubble. The matter pertained to NASA’s solicitation of private enterprises to devise concepts regarding the Hubble augmentation path. In summary, NASA considered the idea extensively and decided against moving forward with it after conducting a multi-month feasibility study.

Director of the agency’s Astrophysics Division and Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, Mark Clampin, stated during a June 4 public update on the status of the Hubble Telescope, “Our position right now is that, after exploring the current commercial capabilities, we are not going to pursue a reboost.”. “The NASA team, SpaceX, the Polaris program, and our other possible partners are to be greatly appreciated for their thorough analysis. Undoubtedly, it has improved our understanding of the factors to be taken into account when creating upcoming commercial relaunch missions. “.

Concerning private Hubble servicing, Isaacman, space experts, journalists, and even members of the public have been exchanging views on this matter quite a bit lately. For example, controversy was sparked by a recent NPR investigation that obtained internal NASA emails through a Freedom of Information Act request and showed differing opinions among NASA officials about the concept. As the NPR piece also mentions, Isaacman has also implied that politics may be to blame if the plan failed. Nevertheless, we might have gained some of the clearest understanding of the agency’s logic to date during the most recent Hubble conference.

Given that Hubble is functionally functioning just fine, it would appear that the risks aren’t worth taking at this time. Hubble’s project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, Patrick Crouse, stated during the conference, “We still believe it has a very high reliability.”. “Hubble can be operated very successfully, allowing us to continue conducting ground-breaking science well into the 2030s and beyond. “.

Clampin discussed the risks associated with those findings from the feasibility study mentioned earlier, which included some technological challenges and an early loss of science. A mission such as this could contaminate the telescope’s mirror, according to Clampin. Due to Hubble’s sensitivity as an ultraviolet optical telescope, volatiles of even minute amounts have the potential to land on the mirror. Clampin stated, “We think we need to do some additional work to determine whether the short-term science risks will be outweighed by the long-term science returns.”.

Also, a commercial Hubble servicing mission would require a new rendezvous, docking, and undocking procedure, a spacecraft that has never visited the telescope before, and a new destination, Clampin noted. This presents a number of variables, and these ideas do indeed corroborate what some of those emails obtained by NPR suggested.

The last time Clampin and her team visited Hubble was on the space shuttle, and that trip was quite some time ago. Furthermore, Hubble is an outdated spacecraft; many of the personnel who played a significant role in the early missions have since retired, and there would be a significant amount of work involved in bringing them up to date. “.”.

All of this suggests, however, that a mission to provide commercial servicing is not completely out of the question. As both speakers stressed, it is probably best to postpone such a dangerous mission until it is absolutely necessary. From the looks of things, Hubble will be fine for the foreseeable future, so it doesn’t seem to be.

“Operating at least one gyro through 2035 is more likely than not,” according to Crouse. We currently have four instruments that are very productive and reliable, and we anticipate that their reliability will only increase.

Thus, Hubble does not appear to be nearing its end. “.

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