Is Hubble In Trouble? NASA Weighs Billionaire’s Offer to Fix Hubble Space Telescope

22nd May 2024
Is Hubble In Trouble? NASA Weighs Billionaire’s Offer to Fix Hubble Space Telescope

For more than 30 years, the Hubble Space Telescope has served as one of the key instruments for space exploration. However, nothing lasts forever. Due to multiple equipment failures and malfunctions, it is predicted to last until 2034 – that’s when the telescope is predicted to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

The US billionaire and space tourist Jared Isaacman has a solution for prolonging the spacecraft’s life, but NASA hesitates.

Is there a chance to save Hubble?

The short answer is yes.

Hubble wasn’t the first orbital telescope, but it’s still relatively old. It was launched in 1990 and has experienced several technical issues and repair missions since then.

Jared Isaacman, a private astronaut who has orbited Earth in a SpaceX capsule as part of the Inspiration4 mission, offers to fool the bills for a maintenance mission which would save NASA hundreds of millions of dollars. The study on saving Hubble was presented to NASA back in 2022; however, the agency didn’t approve it back then.

 NPR obtained internal NASA emails, which confirm that the agency has doubts due to scientific and bureaucratic risks.

“This is a fantastic saving for NASA, but also a very challenging concept for NASA legal and procurement,” NASA astrophysics program manager Barbara Grofic wrote in a December 2022 email received by NPR.

Some other experts say Isaacman’s plan was “unnecessary and risky,” and SpaceX’s view of risks and “willingness to accept risk is considerably different than NASA’s.”

Astronauts serviced Hubble
Hubble is mounted in the shuttle’s cargo bay during Servicing Mission 1 while astronaut F. Story Musgrave performs maintenance.
Credit: NASA

NASA is concerned but is still considering the proposal

Meanwhile, NASA has been investigating the idea of having a private crew visit the Hubble on Isaacman’s dime since 2022. The investigation included Isaacman visiting NASA’s facilities to discuss what a maintenance mission to Hubble would entail.

The agency’s astronauts and specialists take the responsibility of not ‘killing’ Hubble very seriously. SpaceX crew simply doesn’t have enough expertise and training to maintain such a complicated and precious thing as the Hubble Space Telescope. Thus, an astronaut who worked on repairing the Hubble, Scott “Scooter” Altman, told NPR that he felt incredible relief after the repairs were completed and that “we’re not the crew that killed the Hubble Space Telescope, the most incredible scientific instrument ever deployed by humans.”

And even the complete and disastrous destruction of the legendary telescope is not the worst-case scenario, as repair-mission astronauts can be injured or even killed if something goes wrong.

 Jared Isaacman says politics is the key obstacle

Jared Isaacman
Jared Isaacman Credit: POLARIS PROGRAM

In January 2024, Isaacman wrote on X: “I am a bit concerned that the ‘clock’ is being run out on this game … at this pace, there may not be a Hubble to save.”

In a February interview, he suggested that some NASA insiders wanted a monopoly on the prestigious experience of getting to handle Hubble.

“Up until now, there’s only been, you know, one group that would ever touch Hubble. And I think that they have an opinion of whether — of who should or shouldn’t be allowed to touch it,” Isaacman said. “I think a lot would say, ‘I’d rather it burn up’ than, you know, go down a slippery slope of, you know, the space community growing. So I think that’s a factor now, unfortunately.”

“Thanks so much for the great notes and such an enjoyable experience visiting the NASA facilities,” Isaacman wrote in an email to SpaceX on the 31st of January, 2023. “We feel incredibly fortunate to play a small part in what we hope will become an exciting mission.”

A long way to gain NASA’s trust

While NASA hasn’t approved the mission yet, it hesitates to say ‘yes’ either. The upcoming Polaris mission can break the ice as SpaceX plans the first demonstration of a private spacewalk outside the Crew Dragon capsule. It’s going to be the first mission in a series of SpaceX flights that Isaacman is sponsoring called the Polaris Program.

 This flight has been repeatedly delayed, with the Polaris Program saying that one delay, for example, was needed to provide “necessary developmental time” to ensure “a safe launch and return” and the completion of mission goals.

Meanwhile, Hubble seems to be in good shape, after the last service mission conducted by NASA’s team 15 years ago.

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