NASA and SpaceX are investigating the possibility of sending a commercial crew to increase Hubble’s orbit
NASA and SpaceX have inked a new agreement to investigate the possibility of deploying a commercial crew on a SpaceX Dragon to increase the Hubble Space Telescope’s orbit. If successful, the mission might prolong the telescope’s operating lifetime by up to 20 years.
NASA officials have said that today’s event is not a mission announcement. For the time being, it is just a feasibility study to see if such a mission is feasible given technological and other restrictions. Indeed, one may think that an unmanned space tug would be most suited for an orbital boosting mission, and there are several space firms working on this kind of technology. However, the expedition seems to be SpaceX’s idea, and for some reason, they (and their collaborator, Jared Isaacman’s Polaris Program) want people to participate.
The deal begins to make more sense with NASA’s confirmation that the mission if carried out, would be free of charge to the government. NASA and SpaceX are also sponsoring their involvement in the research, according to NASA’s Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen, who did not disclose how much the study would cost.
One of the primary objectives of the six-month feasibility study is to investigate how a crewed Dragon capsule, perhaps under the auspices of a Polaris Program mission, may safely meet and dock with Hubble before boosting the Hubble Space Telescope to a higher orbit. While SpaceX has plenty of experience docking with the International Space Station, Jessica Jensen, SpaceX’s VP of customer operations and integration, said that Hubble represented a whole new issue.
“Hubble is unique,” she said. “It’s in a separate orbit, has a different mass, and a different vehicle […] everything will be unique to the telescope.”
Jensen noted that the feasibility assessment, which will be mostly technical but will also examine cost and time, may conclude that an uncrewed trip is preferable. “At this point,” she added, “anything is on the table.”
The project seems to be part of the Polaris Program, a private spaceflight program led by millionaire Jared Isaacman, who traveled to space on the Inspiration4 mission. The project, which was carried out in collaboration with SpaceX, was anticipated to cost less than $200 million. The debt was paid for by Isaacman, who gained his money via the payment processing business Shift4 Payments.