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NASA and SpaceX are studying sending a private crew to boost Hubble’s orbit

SpaceX and NASA have signed a new agreement to study the feasibility of sending a commercial crew in a SpaceX Dragon to boost the orbit of the Hubble Space Telescope. If completed, the mission could extend the operational lifespan of the telescope by as much as 20 years.

NASA officials cautioned that today’s news is not a mission announcement. For now, it’s just a feasibility study to consider whether such a mission is sensible, given technical and other constraints. Indeed, one might assume that an uncrewed space tug might be best suited for an orbital boosting mission, and there are plenty of space startups working on that kind of technology. But apparently the mission was SpaceX’s idea, and for some reason, they (and their partner, Jared Isaacman’s Polaris Program) want humans involved.

The agreement starts to make more sense with NASA’s acknowledgement that the mission, should it go forward, would come at no cost to the government. NASA and SpaceX are also each funding their participation in the study, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen said during a media briefing, though he didn’t specify how much the study will cost.

One of the main goals of the six-month feasibility study is to explore how a crewed Dragon capsule, possible under the aegis of a Polaris Program mission, could safely rendezvous and dock with Hubble, and then boost the Hubble Space Telescope to a higher orbit. While SpaceX has plenty of experience docking with the International Space Station, SpaceX’s VP of customer operations and integration Jessica Jensen acknowledged that Hubble represents an entirely different challenge.

“Hubble’s different,” she said. “It’s in a different orbit, different mass, different vehicle […] it will all be unique to the telescope.”

The feasibility study, which will be predominately technical but will also consider cost and schedule, might determine that an uncrewed mission is more appropriate, Jensen added. “At this point, everything is on the table,” she said.

It seems likely that the mission would be part of the Polaris Program, a private spaceflight program headed by Jared Isaacman, the billionaire that flew to space on the Inspiration4 mission. That mission, which was conducted in partnership with SpaceX, was estimated to cost less than $200 million. Isaacman, who made his fortune from the payment processing company Shift4 Payments, footed the bill.

Hubble recently lost its place as the world’s most famous space telescope, after the newer and more powerful James Webb Space Telescope released its first images this summer. But Hubble’s contributions to science over its 32-year lifespan are arguably immeasurable: The telescope has made more than 1.5 million observations and helped generate material for more than 19,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers, Patrick Crouse, Hubble project manager, said.

But Hubble has not been immune to Earth’s gravity. Since the last servicing mission in 2009, it’s lost about 30 kilometers of altitude, dropping from around 565 kilometers to just under 535. This mission could provide 40-70 kilometers of boost, which could add 15 or even 20 years to the Hubble’s operational life, Crouse said. Should a reboosting mission not take place, Hubble may need to be de-orbited by the end of this decade.

The news is notable not just as the latest sign that the space agency is increasingly turning to commercial partnerships to execute essential missions. It also shows that NASA is theoretically open to working with private, non-astronaut crews, too.

“Alongside NASA, exploration is one of many objectives for the commercial space industry, and probably one of the greatest exploration assets of all time is the Hubble Space Telescope,” Isaacman said. “It’s absolutely exciting to think about extending the life and capabilities of one of our greatest explorers.”

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