NASA experts worry that billionaire space tourist may accidentally break Hubble Space Telescope while trying to repair it

It’s been 15 years since NASA’s flagship Hubble Space Telescope was last serviced by astronauts.

The old observatory, which has been orbiting our planet in low Earth orbit since 1990, is looking a little worse for wear. Persistent technical problems forced teams to return to Earth to repeatedly halt scientific activities.

That’s why billionaire space tourist Jared Isaacman, who has already orbited Earth inside the SpaceX Crew Dragon, said he’s willing to foot the bill for a maintenance mission to repair the old telescope.

But as NPR ReportsIt remains to be seen whether NASA is willing to accept the offer. Emails obtained by the broadcaster indicate that agency scientists are still weighing the risks and rewards of such a mission. After all, the possibility of damaging the telescope was always there, even when NASA’s space shuttle passed by during its visits.

“This is a great savings for NASA, but it is also a very difficult concept for law and procurement for NASA,” Barbara Gruevitch, NASA’s astrophysics program manager, wrote in a December 2022 email obtained by NASA. NPR.

Retired Hubble operations expert Keith Kalinowski, who helped evaluate the plan, wrote that although he favored a “well-planned” mission to serve the orbital outpost, Isaacman’s plan was “unnecessary and risky.”

The International Space Program’s current program manager, Dana Weigel, also wrote that SpaceX’s “view of risk and willingness to accept risk differs greatly from NASA’s,” highlighting “the complexity of construction required to safely conduct a reboot and the extreme immaturity of the spacesuit.” “

“The other issue is the need to restart now rather than later,” wrote astronaut John Grunsfeld, who has performed many previous repairs on Hubble. “The opportunity with Polaris probably won’t exist, but NASA can work with Congress and the administration to request the funds needed to restart a Hubble or booster mission, using a commercial partner where NASA is in the running programs. [sic] seat, and the maturity of space systems is higher and less risky.”

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Another astronaut who worked on repairing Hubble, Scott Altman, said NPR He felt incredibly relieved after the repairs were completed and that “we are not the crew that killed the Hubble Space Telescope, the most amazing scientific instrument humans have ever used.”

It’s an unusual clash between decades-old technology that has revolutionized the cutting-edge worlds of astronomy and space exploration, highlighting the tension between the space agency and the booming private space industry, which has made great strides in recent years, thanks to… Big to SpaceX.

Isaacman was the commander of the first all-civilian mission to space, which saw a four-person crew orbit Earth inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft in September 2021.

For years now, he has been pushing for a maintenance mission, arguing that “there is only limited time for planning.” January tweet. “I’m a little worried that time might run out on this game.”

But SpaceX still has a lot to prove. First, the company has not yet proven that astronauts can safely venture outside of the company’s Crew Dragon capsule.

This part, at least, could change soon. Isaacman has purchased a portfolio of three private space missions as part of the Polaris program, including an upcoming mission dubbed Polaris Dawn that will see astronauts don SpaceX’s recently announced Extravehicular Activity (EVA) suit to perform the first private spacewalk on Earth. Launching later this year.

Meanwhile, NASA has been investigating the idea of ​​a private crew visiting Hubble aboard Isaacman since 2022.

The investigation included a visit by Isaacman to NASA facilities to discuss what a Hubble servicing mission would entail.

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But despite some initial optimism, Hubble experts expressed concerns about SpaceX not having the experience or capacity to work at the decades-old observatory. Approaching Hubble with its massive solar panels can be difficult and extremely risky.

The SpaceX spacecraft also does not have a robotic arm, like NASA’s space shuttle, which was used Hubble service five times Between 1993 and 2009. Without an airlock, the entire capsule would have to be depressurized during the spacewalk, and then recompressed afterwards.

For now, all eyes are on SpaceX and Isaacman, who will attempt the first “commercial EVA.” Put it down Advance this month. “It’s the first time that there haven’t been, you know, government astronauts doing a mission like this.”

Fortunately, there is still time. Hubble is still in surprisingly good shape considering its age, and NASA hopes to continue using it well into the 2030s.

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