Hubble Space Telescope (Credit: NASA)

NASA, SpaceX research possibility for a crewed mission to the Hubble Space Telescope

32 years after the Space Shuttle last visited the Hubble Space Telescope, SpaceX, NASA, and the Polaris Program have announced a joint-research program to look at the feasibility of a crew of astronauts visiting the LEO Observatory again and the possibility of boosting the telescope into a higher orbit extending its lifespan.

  • More details coming soon...
Ashe S.

Ashe S.

Thu Jan 05 2023Written by Ashe S.

13 years after the Space Shuttle last visited the Hubble Space Telescope, SpaceX, NASA, and the Polaris Program have announced a joint-research program to look at the feasibility of a crew of astronauts visiting the LEO Observatory again and the possibility of boosting the telescope into a higher orbit extending its lifespan.

History of Hubble Missions

HST docked to the Space Shuttle Atlantis on Hubble Servicing Mission #5 (Credit: NASA)

After the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) on April 24, 1990, the Observatory become a frequent destination for Space Shuttle Astronauts, with 32 different astronauts helping aid the lifespan of the telescope. 

Over the course of the now 32 years of operation, HST has undergone five separate servicing missions after its initial launch, with each mission repairing or replacing vital hardware on the telescope. 

The first of these missions was dedicated to adding corrective lenses and hardware to account for a manufacturing error in the telescope's mirror. This historic mission saw the Space Shuttle Endeavour and its crew rendezvous and latch onto HST as crews added the necessary hardware to the telescope, allowing for the telescope to begin its mission into studying the cosmos. 

Images of Galaxy M100 before and after Hubble Servicing Mission 1 mirror repair. (Credit: NASA)

The following four servicing missions all either expanded on the capabilities of the HST or replaced vital components, including replacing the solar panels, replacing and calibrating the near-infrared spectroscopy instruments, replacing faulty gyroscope systems, and adding more cameras and instruments to the telescope allowing for deeper and more accurate measurements and imaging.

On the last mission, the crew outfitted the telescope with a docking port adapter. This adapter was installed in 2009, near the end of the Space Shuttle’s lifespan. The idea was that as the shuttle retired, a new craft would be able to dock using the newer docking port and be able to continue to service the historic telescope.

Polaris, SpaceX, & NASA Announce Study

On September 29th, a NASA press conference with SpaceX, Hubble, and Jared Isaacman of the Polaris Program announced that the three organizations were going to begin a study into using a SpaceX ‘Dragon’ capsule to perform the next round of Hubble servicing. 

While there is not a structural issue with the telescope, the orbit of the HST has slowly degraded from 2009 from drag by stray particles over time, and is in need of a ‘reboost’, or adjusting the orbit of the telescope back up to its original altitude. 

The study, funded entirely by SpaceX and Polaris, “at no cost to the government”, will use data collected from the Hubble Telescope and the Dragon Spacecraft and evaluate the possibility of the Dragon spacecraft’s ability to dock to the exterior port on the HST and perform a reboost. Just as the Shuttle servicing missions, the current plan for the study will also include the Polaris program, which would provide the crew onboard the dragon spacecraft and would assist in the reboost of the HST.

On December 22nd, NASA released a Request for Information (RFI) to commercial companies, asking these companies to submit their ideas for a Hubble reboost mission. While this Request for Information has been inspired by the ongoing Space Act Agreement between NASA and SpaceX, the RFI is non-exclusive, letting companies from all across the US to participate in the research study. This marks a step in moving forward with plans to reboost the HST into a stable orbit, and the RFI will likely see many companies participate, with many eager to be a part of the historic mission. 

The Request for Information does not just limit spacecraft for the mission, but can also be used by launch providers to show their interest in launching a mission to the HST, or by smaller subcontractors looking to sell parts and technology that can be used on the mission. 

What Is The Polaris Program

The Polaris Program is a private spaceflight program headed by billionaire Jared Issacman with the goals of expanding the technological reach of private spaceflight companies like SpaceX. Jared Issacman was the head of the Inspiration4 mission, a historic spaceflight mission launched in September, 2020, which spent 3 days in orbit around earth performing medical sciences and technological research. The mission raised $243,000,000 for cancer research through St. Judes Hospital. 

After the Inspiration 4 mission, Issacman created the Polaris Program to further develop spaceflight technology, such as leading the development of new spacesuits able to perform spacewalks using in house technology from SpaceX. This technology along with many other developments headed by Issacman and Polaris are rumored to be a part of the research study with NASA and SpaceX, and if this study leads to a mission being developed, it will likely be named as a Polaris Program mission.

Inspiration 4 Crew before liftoff.
(From Left to Right: Chris Sembroski, Dr. Sian Proctor, Jared Issacman, Hayley Arcenaux)
(Credit: SpaceX, Inspiration4)

Other Options for Hubble

As the HST ages, the need for a servicing mission only grows. Thankfully, there are many options available to NASA to continue to breathe new life into the HST, and the Polaris SpaceX study only adds one plan into the mix. 

SpaceX's Dragon Capsule approaching the Space Station (Credit: NASA)

One option would be to  launch an uncrewed dragon capsule to the telescope to perform the maneuver, as SpaceX has demonstrated that no part operating their space capsule needs a pilot inside to control the craft. 

Through the commercial crew program, SpaceX has launched 28 uncrewed missions to the international space station, where the capsule autonomously performed rendezvous and docking procedures. The Dragon capsule has also demonstrated that it is able to fly at the altitude of the HST, with the Inspiration 4 mission exceeding the operational orbit of the telescope during the three day mission. 

The lack of crew onboard far reduces the risk of the mission, by removing the constraints and procedures that are needed to sustain a crew for the duration of the mission. The lack of crew also allows for higher payload mass to be added to the capsule as life support equipment would not be necessary. The uncrewed capsule would then be able to perform the reboost autonomously before returning to earth to be refurbished and reused for future crew and cargo missions.

Rendering of Northrop Grummans' MEV approaching a satellite. (Credit: Northrop Grumman)

The second option would be a robotic servicing mission, similar to Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) spacecraft. In orbits, especially geostationary or geosynchronous orbits, the main limiting factor to the lifespan of the satellites is the limited fuel supply that the satellites use to correct their orientations and ‘station-keep’, or adjust the orbit of the craft over its lifespan. 

The MEV spacecraft is designed around extending the mission life of satellites in earth orbit, providing needed power, communications, fuel, and control abilities to the customer satellite. The MEV rendezvous with a customer satellite before grasping onto the exterior, where the MEV begins to use its own thrusters and fuel to control the customer satellite. This extends the lifespan of the customer satellite greatly and the MEV is the groundbreaker for a new market of spacecraft. 

For the Hubble, a MEV or similar craft could be used to dock to the Hubble’s exterior docking port, and reboost the telescope into a stable orbit, and could feasibly remain attached to the station to either be used as an emergency control system, or could be adapted into auxiliary control ports for the telescope, providing much needed assistance to the observatory.