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NASA Ought to Allow a Private Expedition to Preserve Hubble

The billionaire businessman Jared Isaacman, who is responsible for the successful commercial space mission Inspiration4 as well as the next private space voyage Polaris Dawn, wants to preserve the Hubble Space Telescope on his own cash. All he needs is NASA’s approval for a mission of that kind.

Nonetheless, reports that in emails obtained by the news organization, several administrators at the space agency expressed reservations rather than being delighted.

Among the first and most well-known space observatories NASA has ever installed is the Hubble Space Telescope. The space shuttle Discovery launched it in April 1990. It was fortunate that NASA soon discovered, to its dismay, that the telescope’s mirror had flaws that significantly limited its utility. The telescope was intended to be maintained by the space shuttle on a regular basis.

When the space shuttle Endeavour visited Hubble in December 1993, it fitted a corrective lens kit, among other things, bringing the telescope back to its maximum performance. Hubble underwent four more servicing flights from NASA, the last of which took place in May 2009 when the space shuttle Atlantis was in orbit.

There are too many scientific marvels found by the Hubble Space Telescope to list. It has taken pictures of everything, including solar system objects and far-off galaxies, nebulas, and stars. However, if action is taken, Hubble’s orbit will begin to deteriorate about 2034 or earlier, at which point it will reach Earth’s atmosphere. Similar to what occurred to Skylab in the late 1970s, its fragments will be dispersed over land and ocean.

The orbiters used to maintain the Hubble Space Telescope are no longer available due to the cancellation of the space shuttle program. That’s where the suggestion made by Jared Isaacman fits in.

Isaacman suggests traveling to the Hubble Space Telescope in a SpaceX Crew Dragon along with a group of private astronauts. Hubble’s life would be prolonged by several years by increasing its orbit with the help of the Crew Dragon. In addition, a spacewalk would be undertaken by the astronauts to fix or improve a few space telescope parts.

The risk-averse safety culture at NASA appears to be the sticking point.

When the space shuttle was still in orbit, maintaining the Hubble Space Telescope required careful planning and challenging work. Before embarking on such trips, NASA astronauts trained for months. The robot arm, which was made in Canada, would be used by the shuttle to approach Hubble and assume control of it. The telescope would be berthed by the arm in the cargo bay of the shuttle, conveniently accessible to the astronauts. The robotic arm would release Hubble upon the completion of the servicing mission, and the shuttle would then make its way back to Earth.

Neither an airlock nor a robot arm are present aboard the Crew Dragon. Before opening the door, astronauts on the SpaceX spacecraft would need to completely expel the atmosphere from the crew cabin. Before they could get back to the Crew Dragon, they would need to work while attached to Hubble.

Emails obtained by NPR indicate that certain NASA officials may be able to predict scenarios in which astronauts on spacewalks die, people maintaining Hubble inadvertently damage the space telescope, or both. It goes without saying that the private sector is a little more tolerant of risk than NASA is.

Isaacman plans to use new EVA suits created by SpaceX to practice spacewalks with a crew on a Crew Dragon during the Polaris Dawn mission. The knowledge gathered from that trip ought to suggest the potential for a private Hubble servicing mission to succeed.

There’s no reason why NASA and Isaacman can’t get down, discuss the space agency’s worries, and work together to create a strategy for a Hubble servicing mission. The space agency does not have many choices to prolong Hubble’s usable life given the end of the space shuttle era.

However, it is likely long overdue for NASA to begin considering Hubble’s successor. As amazing as it has been, Hubble is still dependent on technologies from decades ago. Astronomy would benefit greatly from a more advanced space telescope with visual light capabilities.

A recent article in Next Big Future suggests converting a SpaceX Starship into an orbiting telescope. Hubble’s mirror measures 2.4 meters in diameter; the Starship can hold a mirror that is nine meters in diameter. Building and installing such a space telescope would likely cost between $250 million and $500 million, according to the article.

It is impossible to assess what mysteries such a telescope could be able to uncover from the cosmos.

Frequently writing about space policy, Mark R. Whittington has authored several books on space exploration, including “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” and a political study titled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” Curmudgeons Corner is his blog.

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