SpaceX and NASA just unveiled an ambitious plan to save the Hubble

Hubble's orbit is sagging, and a crew might help it out.

(11-21 Feb. 1997) --- This nearly-vertical view, photographed from the Space Shuttle Discovery, show...
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SpaceX and NASA will conduct a feasibility study to see if the private spaceflight company could successfully dock a crewed vehicle with the 32-year old Hubble Space Telescope to raise its orbit.

“A few months ago, SpaceX approached NASA with the idea for a study whether a commercial crew could help reboot our Hubble spacecraft into a higher orbit,” NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen told reporters during a conference call on Thursday, September 29. Zurbuchen said this might “extend its observational lifetime.” And as NASA officials would later state, Hubble’s observations are important to maintain because they are complementary to the James Webb Space Telescope’s work.

Zurbuchen, who recently announced that he would be retiring as associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, might not be at NASA to witness the results of this study. But nevertheless, he spoke about the importance of pursuing “all possible opportunities” to keep NASA”s fleet healthy in low-Earth orbit.

“After more than 32 years, Hubble remains incredibly productive scientifically,” Patrick Crouse, Hubble Space Telescope project manager, said Thursday. Although NASA launched a new space telescope last year, it’s not seeking to replace Hubble. “Working in tandem with the James Webb Space Telescope enables greater productivity than either of the missions alone would have achieved on their own,” Crouse said.

This image from NASA video shows Space Shuttle Discovery Astronauts Greg Harbaugh (L) and Joe Tanner (R) riding the Robot Arm on February 17, 1997, to inspect and repair some of the Multi Layer Thermal Insulation on the Hubble Space Telescope in the Shuttle's cargo bay during the fourth day of spacewalks to service the telescope. This was the STS-82 mission.

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Here’s the background — Hubble has taken more than 1.5 million observations to date — it reached the million milestone in 2011 — and generated more than 19,000 peer-reviewed science papers, Crouse said.

NASA and SpaceX officials said there is no transfer of funds for this feasibility study. “NASA and SpaceX are funding their own participation.”

The idea is to send a crewed SpaceX mission to low-Earth orbit. This would happen in collaboration with Shift4 Payments founder Jared Isaacman, who chartered the Inspiration4 mission. There, astronauts would work to lift Hubble’s orbit, which has decayed over time. “We’ve dropped about 30 kilometers since 2009,” Crouse said.

What’s next — The study is an early look at the possibility of creating a servicing mission, but it wouldn’t be the first. However, technology is much more sophisticated now than it was when Shuttle astronauts fixed Hubble’s flawed mirror by installing new hardware in 1993.

“From a science perspective, I consider what we did with Shuttle, you know, and servicing Hubble, one of the biggest victories of the agency as a whole,” Zerbuchen said.

Among the list of tasks will be to determine how a SpaceX Dragon would dock with Hubble, because the crew capsule is currently designed to dock with the International Space Station. NASA and SpaceX officials also shared that other questions, like whether or not Hubble hardware could also be serviced during the rendezvous, would be explored in the study.

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