Astroscale and Momentus Sketch Hubble Orbit Boost

17th May 2023
Astroscale and Momentus Sketch Hubble Orbit Boost

The Hubble Space Telescope is falling out of orbit, and NASA are working to prevent the much-loved telescope from reentering the Earth’s atmosphere. NASA recently sent out a call for companies to share innovative methods for a Hubble orbit boost. This ignited a partnership between Astroscale, with offices in the UK and US-based Momentus, who are offering a plan to push Hubble back into its preferred orbit.

NASA sent a request for information (RFI) in December 2022, and Astroscale and Momentus submitted their plan on 9th May 2023. NASA and SpaceX are looking at plans as well, but the American agency wanted a broader view from industry as well.

The proposal arose due to Hubble’s slow descent into the atmosphere. Hubble was launched into low Earth orbit in 1990, and has suffered from drag issues ever since. The telescope has received boosts before, and the last time it was pushed into a higher orbit was in 2009.

Why is Hubble Falling?

Hubble Space Telescope orbiting Earth
Hubble Space Telescope orbiting Earth – Credit: NASA

However, it’s currently in orbital decay due to atmospheric drag. This is the process where gas molecules collide with a satellite or telescope, ultimately dragging the object down until it collides with whatever it is orbiting – and in this case: that’s Earth. So, a Hubble orbit boost is the only way forward to ensure its lifetime is extended. 

Astroscale and Momentus: Their Solution For A Hubble Orbit Boost

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope after it’s last service mission in 2009 – Credit: NASA

For context: Astroscale is global space company headquartered in Japan that is focused on space debris and satellite longevitiy issues in space. Momentous seeks to provide space infrastructure and orbital transportation spolutions. They propose that a vehicle mounts the telescope, and then raises it to the desired height, and then dismounts. 

They would boost Hubble’s orbital height by 50 kilometres from its current altitude of 527 kilometres and then undock. And once that process is complete, the vehicle can clear any passing debris that is stuck in Earth orbit and approaching the multi-billion dollar telescope.

Ron Lopez, President and Managing Director of Astroscale’s US operation, stated: “The Hubble’s need for a reboost should be an important wake-up call as to why the space industry needs dynamic and responsive in-space infrastructure, and in this case, to extend opportunities to explore our universe.”

How Will The Partnership Work?

In terms of splitting the workload, the orbital service vehicle would come from Momentus’ design and construction and would be sent into space on a small launch vessel, whereas the docking technology will be fronted by Astroscale. Both companies have stated that they will share the costs of the project and that by collaborating, they would also negate any scheduling issues.

The partnership – and the study of Hubble’s reboost – has come off the back of growing interest in the satellite and telescope servicing industry. Many space companies are now focusing on servicing orbital satellites, in addition to repairs, refuelling and debris clearing. 

Momentous’ Chief Executive, John Rood, recently said in a statement: “We found our product suites to be synergistic in support of a major NASA mission. I am thrilled that we collaborated to offer NASA a very cost-effective way to continue to operate this billion-dollar scientific investment by leveraging new robotic in-space servicing technology.”   

“The proliferation of in-space servicing and assembly allows us to reimagine how our investments are managed in space; it is the foundation on which the new space age is being built.”

What Happens Next: NASA & SpaceX 

SpaceX's Crew Dragon endeavor
Credit: NASA

NASA have reported that eight responses were tabled, though only Astroscale and Momentus disclosed their plan. However, NASA did emphasise that the RFI was designed to gauge interest and to see whether reboosting Hubble could be achieved and how it would be done. NASA noted that the RFI wasn’t a proposal, but rather a submission of information that can be presented to the government to determine next steps. Nevertheless, both Astroscale and Momentus are hopeful that the pioneering plan could see more paid commercial and government grants. 

The other issue with the RFI is that SpaceX and NASA will study possible ways to reboost Hubble using the Crew Dragon SpaceX shuttle. NASA and SpaceX are yet to release the details of their findings but the study has been reportedly completed, and they are now determining next steps. 

All in all, Hubble is still in great shape and working perfectly. However, NASA have predicted that without the reboost, atmospheric drag around Hubble could see a 50% chance of reentry by 2037. Therefore, NASA is acting now with commercial partners to ensure Hubble remains in orbit. 

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