NASA wants ideas to boost Hubble Space Telescope into a higher orbit with private spaceships

NASA and SpaceX are conducting a six-month feasibility study to assess whether Dragon missions could safely boost the orbit of, and perhaps also otherwise service, the Hubble Space Telescope.
A study by SpaceX to use private spacecraft to reboost the Hubble Space Telescope has NASA weighing options. (Image credit: NASA/SpaceX)

NASA is looking deeper into the possibility of using a private spacecraft to lift the Hubble Space Telescope to new heights, giving the influential space observatory a new lease on life. 

On Dec. 22, the space agency issued a Request for Information regarding a non-exclusive SpaceX study earlier this year that suggested how the Hubble Space Telescope could be "reboosted" into a higher orbit.

NASA's request for information, which you can read here, comes as it continues to consider the space telescope's future and will remain open until Jan. 24, 2023.

Related: The  best Hubble Space Telescope images of all time

Since the start of Hubble's operations in 1990, the orbit of the space telescope 335 miles (540 kilometers) above Earth has been decaying. Reboosting it to an orbit that is both higher and more stable could add years to Hubble’s operating lifetime delaying the point at which NASA must deorbit or dispose of the telescope.

During its five space shuttle missions to the service Hubble, NASA used the shuttle to reboost the telescope. The last shuttle servicing mission to Hubble was in 2009. NASA retired its shuttle fleet in 2011.

The idea to raise Hubble to a higher orbit using a Dragon spacecraft at no cost to the government was first developed between SpaceX and Polaris Program, a private program of space missions using SpaceX's Dragon and Starship vehicles funded by billionaire Jared Isaacman. The unfunded agreement between SpaceX and NASA to study the feasibility of reboosting Hubble was then signed in September 2022.

The SpaceX study was designed to help NASA, which currently has no plans to operate or fund a new Hubble servicing mission, determine the commercial possibility of such a mission. The SpaceX study also aimed to lay out the technical challenges of such a servicing endeavor. 

The fact the study is non-exclusive means that other companies are free to propose their own Hubble servicing studies based on the use of different rockets or spacecraft. 

These studies will collect data from Hubble itself and from SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft to assess the possibility of safely rendezvousing and docking with the space telescope before shunting it to a higher stable orbit. The studies are expected to take around 6 months to complete. 

"This study is an exciting example of the innovative approaches NASA is exploring through private-public partnerships,” associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, Thomas Zurbuchen, said in a statement. "As our fleet grows, we want to explore a wide range of opportunities to support the most robust, superlative science missions possible."

The operation to reboost Hubble would demonstrate how older satellites and spacecraft could be given extended operating lives, especially those in near-Earth orbits like the space telescope. 

"SpaceX and the Polaris Program want to expand the boundaries of current technology and explore how commercial partnerships can creatively solve challenging complex problems," said Jessica Jensen, vice president of Customer Operations & Integration at SpaceX. "Missions such as servicing Hubble would help us expand space capabilities to ultimately help all of us achieve our goals of becoming a space-faring, multiplanetary civilization."

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Robert Lea
Senior Writer

Robert Lea is a science journalist in the U.K. whose articles have been published in Physics World, New Scientist, Astronomy Magazine, All About Space, Newsweek and ZME Science. He also writes about science communication for Elsevier and the European Journal of Physics. Rob holds a bachelor of science degree in physics and astronomy from the U.K.’s Open University. Follow him on Twitter @sciencef1rst.

  • steve_foston
    What an excellent idea, Hubble could have a useful life well into the future - I'm sure an upgrade to the optics is also on the cards. It gives scope too to think about the long term retirement of the instrument, previously I have suggested deorbiting it to the surface of the moon as a future tourist site. Deorbiting to the the ocean would be a complete waste of this noble instrument.
  • Dr.Mt
    Admin said:
    NASA is looking deeper into the possibility of using a private spacecraft to lift the Hubble Space Telescope to new heights after a study by SpaceX.

    NASA wants ideas to boost Hubble Space Telescope into a higher orbit with private spaceships : Read more
    European Space Agency ATV... It is a transfer vehicle.
    Use an ATV Bus with arms to grasp, latch to HST, navigation, and fuel... to move to another obit. If have sufficient fuel, it could either stay attached along the side or be parked 100 metres away in the same orbit so would have it's own personal relocation tug boat. IF we wanted to service HST, the ESA ATV TugBoat could lower the orbit and after the service call, work, upgrades, be move back to a new higher orbit.
    The ISS or TianGong would be extremely Ideal location to have HST ferried to be serviced/upgraded.
    We could use the same have own individual Space Telescope ESA ATV to launch the other Hubble Buses the US Military gifted to NASA.
    The ISS (future version of modules) could be like the TianGong... an actual Orbital Space Platform. It would be a new function/feature of orbital platforms. The Chinese built their's with this facility. Use the platforms.
    There is no need to loft astronauts to the orbital plane of HST when the HST can be brought to the service station. :)
  • BobDolesGhost
    steve_foston said:
    I'm sure an upgrade to the optics is also on the cards.

    iirc hubble has had a couple of reaction wheels cease working. There are probably several components that would be a high priority to refurbish/replace. I'm not sure a spacewalk out of a dragon capsule is in the cards though