Hubble glitch renews talk of private service mission

WASHINGTON — A problem with the Hubble Space Telescope has renewed debate over whether and how NASA might approve a private mission to strengthen and possibly repair the spacecraft.

NASA announced on November 29 that Hubble was in safe mode due to a problem with one of its three operational gyroscopes. That gyro first triggered a safe mode on November 19 when it gave what NASA described as erroneous readings. Spacecraft controls restored Hubble’s operations, only to see problems again on November 21 and 23.

The agency said in the statement that engineers were studying the problem and did not estimate when science operations would resume. Hubble can operate with only a single gyro, but with some loss of productivity, such as the inability to perform some solar system observations.

Hubble has six gyros, which were installed during the fifth and final shuttle servicing mission in 2009. Three of the six have since failed.

News of this latest, temporary problem with Hubble prompted a response from Jared Isaacman, the billionaire who backs the Polaris program for SpaceX’s private astronaut missions. “Put us in coach,” he Posted on social media.

It was a reference to a study announced in September 2022 involving Isaacman, SpaceX and NASA to study the feasibility of a private mission to augment and possibly repair Hubble with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. At the time, Isaacman suggested that a Hubble mission could be the second of three planned Polaris missions.

The study, conducted under an unfunded Space Act Agreement, was completed earlier this year, but neither NASA nor SpaceX have released any details about the results of the study or next steps.

Isaacman, in other social media posts, suggested the study concluded that a reboost and service mission was feasible: “This should be a simple risk/reward decision.” However, he did not reveal any details on how the mission would be carried out.

Nor is SpaceX the only option for servicing Hubble. NASA issued a request for information last December seeking concepts for commercial missions to relaunch Hubble. NASA said it would not fund such a mission, instead offering it as an opportunity for companies to demonstrate their satellite services.

The agency received eight responses, including one from satellite services company Astroscale in partnership with space transportation company Momentus. NASA said at the time that it was evaluating them, but did not provide a timeline for completing that review.

“Part of that review involves looking at the capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope and how that would work together with the telescope, and making sure that the telescope itself remains safe in the process,” said Mark Clampin, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division. of the review of these service proposals during a July 27 NASA Science Board meeting.

Industry officials have privately said they believe a reboost mission of some kind, involving either Crew Dragon or a robotic spacecraft, is feasible with current capabilities. Doing so would help extend Hubble’s life by counteracting a gradual decay in its orbit from air resistance.

However, there is more skepticism about the possibility of repairing Hubble given the complexity of such work. Dragon lacks features such as an airlock and robotic service arm, while robotic systems have yet to demonstrate the ability to perform advanced repairs in orbit.

There is also the issue of cost. While NASA said a reboost mission would be done without exchange of money, a servicing mission would likely have some cost to NASA, industry experts said, such as hardware needed to perform the repairs and time from NASA engineers to support that work.

It comes as the agency’s science divisions prepare for potentially significant budget cuts. That includes, Clampin said at an Oct. 13 advisory committee meeting, is considering cutting the operating budget for Hubble in fiscal year 2024 with an unspecified amount.

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