New private Hubble Space Telescope rescue scheme may target space debris 2023

NASA requested information in December 2022 on a non-exclusive SpaceX research announced in September. Space firms Momentus and Astroscale submitted a proposal. (SpaceX’s underfunded proposal examines possibilities to place the 33-year-old Hubble Space Telescope in a “reboosted” higher orbit, but other firms can propose their own proposals.)

“We found our product suites to be synergistic in support of a major NASA mission,” Momentus CEO John Rood remarked on May 9 (opens in new tab). Momentus has a “dangerously low cash reserve” as of their first quarter financial data on May 11, according to Payload Space(opens in new tab). Momentus and Astroscale released their Hubble proposal two days before the findings.

A commercial collaboration seeks to prolong the Hubble Space Telescope’s lifespan and clear up local orbital trash.

Startups are space-savvy. In March 2021, Astroscale, a 2013 startup, introduced ELSA-d. The mission to test trash capture technologies using a simulated piece of debris was suspended in May 2022 owing to “anomalous spacecraft conditions.” Astroscale envisions a 2024 endeavor.

Momentus, which began operations in 2017, has flown several Vigoride space tug demonstrations on SpaceX rideshare missions. The Astroscale-Momentus Hubble concept would launch Vigoride on an unspecified rocket. After reaching space, the tug would employ Astroscale technology to rendezvous, proximity, and dock with the telescope. Vigoride would raise Hubble’s orbit by 31 miles (50 kilometers) before clearing up orbital trash.

According to Payload, Momentus is spending $8 million a month and has $40 million in cash, despite cash flow from various service agreements and the U.S. Space Force. Momentus has a $40 million market valuation, therefore Payload’s report indicated funding “will be a challenge.”

Momentus’ shares fell below $1 in March, prompting the Nasdaq to warn of delisting, according to CNBC(opens in new tab). Momentus has 180 days until late September to boost its share price.

Discovery launched Hubble in April 1990. Late 2022 found it 335 miles (540 km) above Earth, 38 miles (60 km) lower than its starting orbit. Earth’s tiny atmosphere drags Hubble down slowly.

Five space shuttle trips to maintain Hubble and increase its orbit, the last in 2009, have kept it healthy. NASA discontinued shuttle servicing in 2011.

Hubble’s study earned a Nobel Prize and thousands of peer-reviewed articles. It now collaborates with the more powerful NASA James Webb Space Telescope to study our solar system and the distant universe. Webb, launched in 2021, is studying early galaxy evolution even further back in time than Hubble’s “deep field” research.

Patrick Crouse, Hubble project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, indicated in a September 2022 briefing that Hubble had a 50% chance of coming down to Earth in 2037 at its present height. The news conference discussed SpaceX’s unfunded Space Act Agreement with NASA proposal.

No Hubble rescue mission has been approved. Under the September 2022 agreement, NASA would not pay for such an endeavor.

SpaceX’s Polaris Program would support Hubble. Jared Isaacman’s Polaris initiative uses SpaceX’s Dragon and Starship ships to carry him and other commercial astronauts. (Polaris Dawn, the first of the trio, will launch no early than September this year; Isaacman first traveled to space on another SpaceX mission he financed, Inspiration4, in September 2021.)

“We’re going to be looking at Dragon capabilities and how they would need to be modified in order to safely rendezvous and dock with Hubble,” SpaceX vice president of customer operations and integration Jessica Jensen said at the September 2022 briefing. “Details of exactly physically how that’s done, and how we also safely do that from a trajectory point of view—that’s to be worked out.”

Isaacman tweeted Sunday (May 14) that SpaceX-Polaris will prolong the telescope’s lifespan by 20 years.

SpaceX’s Starlink constellation’s implications on astronomy, particularly Hubble, have been questioned. In March 2023, Nature Astronomy published a peer-reviewed research that indicated 5.9% of Hubble photos contain satellite tracks, up from 3.7% in 2002. SpaceX hopes to launch 40,000 Starlink satellites if the U.S. Federal Communications Commission authorizes.

NASA is reviewing Hubble suggestions from its Jan. 24, 2023 call for information (opens in new tab). Other consortiums may have bid. NASA officials said the research will benefit future refueling, orbit-boosting, and other cost-saving initiatives to lengthen satellite lifespans.

“This study is an exciting example of the innovative approaches NASA is exploring through private-public partnerships,” stated NASA Science Mission Directorate associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen in December 2022.(new tab) “As our fleet grows, we want to explore a wide range of opportunities to support the most robust, superlative science missions possible.”

Two more NASA telescopes are being examined for rescue. IEEE Spectrum reported in October 2022 that Northrop Grumman is studying a service mission for the 1999-launched Chandra X-ray Observatory.

TRW, now Northrop Grumman, built Chandra, and SpaceLogistics’ Mission Extension Vehicles support Intelsat communications satellites. SpaceLogistics is developing a vehicle with a robotic arm to remotely repair orbiting spacecraft.

NASA’s 2003 Spitzer Space Telescope may possibly be revived. Last Thursday, the U.S. Space Force awarded Rhea Space Activity $250,000 for an early-stage investigation. Spitzer is two astronomical units (two Earth-sun distances) from Earth to keep it cold for infrared light (heat radiation) detection.

The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Blue Sun Enterprises, and Lockheed Martin support Rhea financially. Spitzer was discontinued in 2020 to make place for Webb, a $10 billion observatory that NASA prioritized above other astrophysics initiatives when Webb’s budget soared past projections.

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