A malfunction in Hubble renews talk about a special maintenance mission

WASHINGTON — A problem with the Hubble Space Telescope has renewed debate over whether NASA might approve a special mission to restart 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 operating gyroscopes. This gyroscope first triggered safe mode on November 19 when it gave what NASA described as false readings. Spacecraft controllers recovered Hubble’s operations, but saw problems again on November 21 and 23.

The agency said in the statement that engineers were studying the problem and did not estimate when scientific operations would resume. Hubble can operate with just one gyroscope, although some throughput is lost, such as the inability to make some solar system observations.

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

News of this latest temporary problem at Hubble sparked a reaction from Jared Isaacman, the billionaire who supports SpaceX’s Polaris private astronaut mission program. “Put us in the coach,” he said. to publish On social media.

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

The study, conducted under the Unfunded Space Act Agreement, was completed earlier this year, but neither NASA nor SpaceX provided any details about the study results or next steps.

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Isaacman, in other social media posts, suggested that the study concludes that a reboot and service mission is possible: “This should be an easy risk/reward decision.” But he did not reveal details about how the mission would be carried out.

SpaceX is also not the only option for Hubble service. NASA issued a request for information last December seeking ideas for commercial missions to reboot Hubble. NASA said it would not fund such a mission, and instead would present it as an opportunity for companies to demonstrate their satellite servicing capabilities.

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

“Part of this review means looking at the capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope itself and how this will work in coordination with the telescope, and making sure that the telescope itself remains safe during the process,” said Mark Clampin, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division. To review these service proposals during NASA’s Science Hall meeting on July 27.

Industry officials have privately said they believe a reboot mission of some sort, involving either a Crew Dragon or a robotic spacecraft, is possible given current capabilities. Doing so would help extend Hubble’s life by resisting the gradual deterioration of its orbit due to atmospheric drag.

However, there are more doubts about the ability to repair Hubble given the complexity of this work. Dragon lacks capabilities such as an airlock and a robotic arm for servicing, while robotic systems have yet to demonstrate the ability to perform advanced repairs in orbit.

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There is also the issue of cost. While NASA has said the restart mission will be done on a no-money basis, the servicing mission will likely incur some costs for NASA, industry experts said, such as the hardware needed to carry out repairs and the time it takes NASA engineers to do so. Support this work.

This comes as the agency’s scientific departments brace for potentially significant budget cuts. That includes considering cutting Hubble’s operating budget in fiscal year 2024 by an unspecified amount, Clampin said at an advisory committee meeting on October 13.

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