The iconic Hubble Space Telescope is best known for stunning astrophotography that produced images like the Hubble Deep Field. However, this aging telescope hasn’t been serviced since before the space shuttle was retired. Aerospace companies like Sierra Nevada now think they can change that by sending crews to Hubble on its Dream Chaser spacecraft. White House advisors are now considering this plan as part of an agenda meant to encourage private investment in new space capacities.
This is still highly preliminary and could evolve over time. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has retired from the post and a replacement has not yet been selected. White House aides and advisors have been overseeing NASA and may still veto the concept. However, encouraging statements made by officials close to NASA indicate that concepts like this one could be part of an effort to produce space projects that are relatively inexpensive, attention-getting and accessible to the general public.
The Hubble Space Telescope As A Workhorse
When the Hubble Space Telescope was initially launched in 1990, it turned out to be crippled by a flaw in a lens that caused it to produce blurry pictures. Though it was initially deemed a failure, the STS-61 crew performed the first of an eventual five servicing missions in December 1993. They installed a corrective lens referred to as COSTAR to compensate for the flawed lens. In layman’s terms, the Hubble Space Telescope is still nearsighted, but now it has a contact lens.
Once the successful mission was completed, the Hubble Space Telescope began returning pictures like the Ultra Deep Field imagery seen in the above video. Subsequent servicing crews performed maintenance and added new instruments like the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph and Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer installed by STS-82. STS-103 in December 1999 was essentially a repair mission that “rescued” the telescope from a state of dormancy that it had entered when three of its six gyroscopes failed. For being a mission that was conceived and planned in a record-setting seven months, STS-103 was an impressive success that included the installation of new gyroscopes, an upgraded main computer, a new transmitter, an enhanced fine guidance sensor, and new insulation. STS-109 visited the telescope in March 2002 to replace a camera, install a new solar array, and add a new power controller and cryocooler. STS-125 made the fifth and final maintenance visit to the Hubble Space Telescope to add instruments that could study objects that could be “seen” better in ultraviolet light and make repairs to failed components.
Just the fact that NASA was willing to devote five service and upgrade missions to the Hubble Space Telescope is a good indicator of its importance to science back on Earth. Observations made through the Hubble Space Telescope improved our understanding of concepts like the distribution of dark matter throughout the universe, discovered two of Pluto’s moons (Nix and Hydra), gave us spectacular images of protoplanetary nebulae around young stars, and detected powerful gamma ray bursts that scientists believe are generated by massive stars that are in the process of collapsing into black holes. So it’s no surprise that interested parties would like to see new spacecraft become capable of manned mission like new service missions to Hubble.
Work On New Telescopes Continue
NASA and its contractors are still making progress on new telescopes like the James Webb Telescope. Most recently, components of the James Webb Telescope were literally shaken down to make sure they can withstand the forces they will be subjected to during launch. This telescope will be launched to the L2 point, where gravitational forces from the Earth, Moon and Sun are about equal. Once there, this telescope will participate in scientific endeavors like the search for exoplanets.
Organizations and private companies simply believe that one need not decommission old hardware simply because the space shuttle is now retired. A spokesperson for Sierra Nevada says that using the Dream Chaser to service the Hubble Space Telescope will further the company’s goal of making their spacecraft a multipurpose vehicle for servicing, repair and assembly of new and existing space-based hardware ranging from orbiting telescopes to the International Space Station.