NASA announced Thursday that it plans to study the possibility of using SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle to boost the aging Hubble Space Telescope into a higher orbit. Ars Technica reports: The federal agency has signed a “Space Act Agreement” with SpaceX to conduct a six-month study to determine the practicability of Dragon docking with the 32-year-old telescope and boosting it into a higher orbit. The study is not exclusive, meaning that other companies can propose similar concepts with alternative rockets and spacecraft. […] Among the questions the new Hubble study will answer is the cost of such a mission and its technical feasibility. The principal goal is to boost Hubble’s altitude from its current level of 535 km to 600 km, the same altitude it was at when first launched in 1990. Since the fifth and final servicing mission in 2009, Hubble has slowly been losing altitude, and this process is expected to accelerate as the telescope gets lower.
The telescope’s project manager, Patrick Crouse, said during a teleconference with reporters that in absence of a re-boost mission, NASA might have to launch a propulsion module to the telescope by the end of the 2020s. This would ensure Hubble makes a controlled reentry into Earth’s atmosphere and lands in the Pacific Ocean. A Dragon mission to boost Hubble’s altitude could add 15 or even 20 years of orbital lifetime, Crouse said. The study will also look at potential servicing options, although nothing like the detailed instrument replacements and major upgrades performed during Hubble servicing missions with NASA’s space shuttle. Rather, engineers from NASA and SpaceX will assess the feasibility of replacing the gyroscopes that control the pointing of the telescope. Only three of the spacecraft’s six gyroscopes remain in working order.