Private owners offer to save the Hubble telescope

Astroscale and Momentus announced details of their plan to raise the orbit of the Hubble telescope. If implemented, it will extend the service life of the orbital observatory for several years.

How much time does the Hubble telescope have left

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990. The observatory is still in operation, regularly delighting us with new stunning images of deep space objects. But how long will Hubble be able to work? As a rule, conversations about the possible life of a telescope are limited to discussing the state of its internal systems and scientific instruments. But there is another important factor that directly affects the lifetime of Hubble. It’s about the height of its orbit. 

Hubble telescope. Source: NASA

The telescope does not have its own engines. Therefore, raising its orbit is possible only with the use of “third-party” spacecraft. Previously, shuttles were used for this. The last time a cruise spacecraft lifted the Hubble orbit was in 2009. This happened as part of the final telescope maintenance mission.

Hubble is currently in a 530-kilometer near-Earth orbit and its altitude is gradually decreasing under the influence of the upper layers of the earth’s atmosphere.At the same time, it is worth reminding that now the Sun is entering a new cycle of activity. This process will be accompanied by the inevitable “inflating” of the earth’s atmosphere, which will accelerate the exit from orbit of all spacecraft. According to recent estimates, the telescope may burn up in the atmosphere in the middle of the next decade.

Since Hubble still has the ability to conduct scientific observations, its premature exit from orbit will be a significant loss for astronomers. Therefore, NASA has begun to work out a potential plan to save the telescope. Last year, the organization held consultations with billionaire Jared Isaacman about the possibility of using the Crew Dragon spacecraft to raise the height of Hubble’s orbit. And in December 2022, NASA approached private companies with an offer to provide their options for extending the life of the telescope.

Hubble Rescue Plan

On May 9, Astroscale and Momentus announced that they had sent their joint proposal to save Hubble and published its details. It consists in the following. With the help of a small carrier, a space tug built by Momentus will be launched to Hubble. It will dock with the telescope using Astroscale technologies, after which it will raise the height of the telescope’s orbit by 50 km. This will be enough to give it at least a few extra years of life. After undocking, the tug can be used to solve additional tasks. For example, the removal of potentially dangerous space debris objects from Hubble.

Hubble telescope. Source: NASA

According to a recent NASA statement, currently it has received eight proposals for raising the Hubble orbit. At the moment, Astroscale and Momentus are the only companies that have publicly announced their willingness to participate in this project. 

At the same time, it is worth noting that the potential Hubble rescue mission will not be funded by NASA. The organization positions it as a technological demonstration of the capabilities for servicing spacecraft. Given Hubble’s iconic status, saving the telescope will certainly be a great advertisement for the company that organized it, which explains the significant interest of the industry in the NASA proposal.

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