Well, That’s One Way to Save a Space Telescope From Falling Back to Earth

The beloved Hubble observatory could get the SpaceX treatment.

A picture of the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit, shining against the darkness of space
NASA

The Hubble Space Telescope is falling.

Not imminently, but it’s happening. The beloved observatory, which has spent decades revealing cosmic wonders from its perch a few hundred miles above Earth, does not have a propulsion system to maintain its altitude. According to NASA’s latest projections, the observatory could reenter Earth’s atmosphere as early as 2037—a grim fate that the agency has been anticipating for many years. When the last crew of astronauts visited Hubble for repairs, in 2009, they installed a special piece of hardware on its exterior so that, when that time came, a spacecraft could come up, clip on, and guide the telescope to a safe reentry through the atmosphere. On its way down, Hubble would streak through the skies like a meteor and then fall into the sea.

Well, that was supposed to be the story. But the future of Hubble, which turned 32 this year, just got a lot weirder. A new possibility has emerged, and it’s so unusual, so random, that it seems as if NASA used a giant game-show wheel to come up with it: The space agency might let (spins wheel) a couple of billionaires (spins wheel) use SpaceX technology (spins wheel) to lift a national space treasure into a higher orbit and thus make it last longer.

NASA and SpaceX announced this week that they will explore whether a SpaceX spacecraft, the kind that currently flies people—professional astronauts and space tourists alike—could visit Hubble, somehow attach itself to the telescope, and then raise it higher. They will also consider whether future SpaceX missions could service Hubble, the way NASA astronauts used to do it before their rides to orbit, the space shuttles, were retired in 2011. The observatory is not as spry as it used to be; some of its hardware has deteriorated or stopped functioning, a condition that an astronomer once described to me as “electronic osteoarthritis.” A boost and some repairs would extend its lifetime, allowing astronomers to use it for many more years than they expected.

Both sides were quick to point out that this is only a study, not a sure thing. The research effort is expected to last about six months, and although NASA experts will work with SpaceX personnel, the space agency isn’t paying for the study, nor has it committed to helping fund the mission if it happens. But the fact that these discussions are taking place at all is one more sign that the super-rich are becoming deeply embedded in all kinds of aspects of America’s space future. First, billionaires figured out how to build their own rockets and capsules. Now they’re trying out a new kind of space philanthropy. Anyone with a soft spot for space stuff and enough money to buy a SpaceX flight could potentially contribute to, and even alter, the course of American space exploration.

The wannabe Hubble saviors are two billionaires. The first is, of course, Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, whose company has partnered with NASA for years on multiple missions. In one high-profile example, SpaceX is developing a lunar lander that future NASA astronauts would use to touch down on the moon for the first time since the Apollo missions. The second is Jared Isaacman, the businessman who paid to fly himself and three others on a SpaceX capsule last year. Isaacman has partnered with SpaceX to fund his own private spaceflight program, with a series of missions in the coming years. “We’d be taking advantage of everything that’s been developed within the commercial space industry to potentially execute on a mission—should the study warrant it—with little or no potential cost to the government,” Isaacman said at a press conference yesterday. (SpaceX is providing the tech, but Isaacman, based on his involvement, appears to be picking up the tab.)

NASA said that SpaceX approached the agency with the idea a few months ago, but neither party would disclose who exactly came up with it and what those early conversations were like. Raising a spacecraft’s orbit like this hasn’t been done before, let alone on a billionaire’s dime, but NASA officials sounded almost relieved at the thought. SpaceX’s interest would “frankly take something off the minds” of people at the agency, Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of science missions at NASA, told reporters. A Hubble-boosting mission was always on the wish list for scientists and engineers at NASA, so the agency seems to be saying: Why not?

Hubble, a shiny household name, is an obvious beneficiary of this brand of space philanthropy—but there are other aging space telescopes out there that could be in need of the same sort of care. Earlier this year, an official at Northrop Grumman said the company is brainstorming a service mission to Chandra, a 23-year-old NASA telescope that detects X-ray emissions from faraway celestial sources. Like Hubble, it could use some sprucing up. Would a very wealthy person who just so happens to be a sucker for X-ray astronomy want to do it instead?

Even NASA’s newest space telescope, which began operations this summer, could someday receive a SpaceX house call. The James Webb Space Telescope, which orbits roughly a million miles from Earth, has enough fuel to keep working for about 20 years. When I asked Zurbuchen last year what he would say if someone like Elon Musk offered to refuel the observatory, the NASA official said he’d be open to it. The latest partnership between NASA and SpaceX suggests that similar futures don’t have to involve Musk as an individual at all, only his company’s launch services. (For his part, Musk reacted to the news of the surprise collaboration with “Yay.”) Perhaps a future space-nerd billionaire could buy a mission designed to simply sidle up to a defunct space telescope, taking in the view as if he were in a museum, before heading back home.

It’s not yet clear how a Hubble mission might work, and whether it would even involve astronauts. In the past, NASA officials have suggested the possibility of extending Hubble’s operations by using an autonomous, robotic mission to lift the observatory into a higher orbit. When I asked Jessica Jensen, SpaceX’s vice president for customer operations and integration, if an uncrewed mission could do the job instead, she said, “There could be something that comes out of this study that says, Hey, it does not make sense to have a human mission going to do this.”

But there is certainly something magical about the thought of a crew blasting off into the sky to help rescue a flailing space telescope, and surely Isaacman is aware of that. He is a man who seems to enjoy repeating spaceflight records and setting his own firsts. On his next mission, scheduled for sometime next spring, Isaacman wants to break the record for the highest low-Earth orbit spaceflight, set by Apollo astronauts in the 1960s as they trained for moon missions. That mission is also expected to include the first-ever spacewalk by someone who is not a professional astronaut, and I have a hunch that, out of the four-person crew, Isaacman might be the one who suits up to go first. A privately funded, high-stakes mission to America’s favorite space telescope would be a new kind of feat.

For now, Hubble is chugging along, the rare Millennial that hasn’t burned out yet. The telescope was at an altitude of about 350 miles (565 kilometers) during the final shuttle visit 13 years ago. It has since fallen about 19 miles (30 kilometers). Every now and then it experiences a glitch and slips into safe mode, enjoying a little doze while engineers devise a fix to bring it back online. And when Hubble is on, it’s on; just this week, the telescope captured the impact that took place when a NASA space probe purposefully slammed into an asteroid.

Earlier this year, Jim Jeletic, Hubble’s deputy project manager, told me that he hoped NASA would come up with the design and the funding to give Hubble more time. He even imagined that future generations, with technology more advanced than what we have now, could figure out a way to bring the telescope home in one piece and place it in a museum. NASA would probably not be allowed to spend millions of dollars and other resources to retrieve a decades-old piece of astronomy equipment and stick it in the National Air and Space Museum. But maybe a billionaire could pull it off.