WASHINGTON — Two companies have disclosed details about how they could raise the orbit of the Hubble Space Telescope as NASA evaluates that and other concepts offered to the agency.
Astroscale and Momentus said May 9 that they submitted a response to a NASA request for information (RFI) issued in December 2022 seeking concepts from industry about how they could raise the orbit of Hubble, has been slowly descending since the last shuttle servicing mission in 2009.
The two companies proposed working together to attach a vehicle to the telescope and raise its orbit. Their concept involved using technologies Astroscale is developing to dock with and extend the life of satellites and orbital transfer vehicles from Momentus.
In the proposal, a Momentus orbital service vehicle, launched on a small launch vehicle, would approach Hubble, attaching to it with Astroscale’s technology. The vehicle would boost Hubble’s orbit, currently at an altitude of about 527 kilometers, by 50 kilometers before undocking. The vehicle could then be used to remove orbital debris in orbits approaching Hubble.
“We found our product suites to be synergistic in support of a major NASA mission,” John Rood, chief executive of Momentus, said in the statement announcing the concept. “I am thrilled that we collaborated to offer NASA a very cost-effective way to continue to operate this billion-dollar scientific investment by leveraging new robotic in-space servicing technology.”
Astroscale is already developing all the elements needed to carry out such a reboost, but a company spokesperson said they decided to work together “because we recognize that this is an opportunity to bolster the in-space servicing ecosystem on a larger scale by providing NASA a commercially viable, all-American small business solution.” The partnership, the company added, would also reduce schedule risk and allow the companies to share costs.
NASA, in the RFI, said it expected any companies that it might later select to reboost Hubble to do so “on a no-exchange-of-funds basis.” NASA would not procure a reboost mission but said the mission could be a demonstration of satellite servicing capabilities that might attract other, paying commercial or government customers.
A NASA spokesperson told SpaceNews May 12 that the agency received eight responses to the RFI, which are currently being reviewed. It did not disclose who submitted the responses, and Astroscale and Momentus are the only companies that have publicized their response.
NASA emphasized that the RFI is simply an effort to help the agency determine whether and how to reboost Hubble’s orbit. “The responses to the RFI are not proposals, but rather information for the government to consider as it determines any next steps.”
NASA issued the RFI nearly three months after it announced it signed a Space Act Agreement with SpaceX to study a Hubble reboost mission using a Crew Dragon spacecraft. That proposed mission could be part of the Polaris program of private astronaut missions funded by billionaire Jared Isaacman, who participated in the September 2022 briefing that announced the study.
Neither NASA nor SpaceX have released details about the study, which was set to conclude nearly six months after it started. A NASA spokesperson confirmed May 12 that the study was now complete. “The feasibility study has concluded, and NASA is now internally evaluating the findings and working to determine next steps.”
Hubble remains in good condition and is in high demand among astronomers. The spacecraft’s orbit is gradually decaying because of atmospheric drag, and NASA previously estimated a 50% chance it would reenter by 2037.
The studies about raising the orbit of Hubble come amid a burst of activity in satellite servicing in industry, ranging from efforts to extend the lives of geostationary orbit communications satellites to refueling and repairing spacecraft. There is also growing interest in removing debris and performing controlled reentries of defunct satellites.
“The Hubble’s need for a reboost should be an important wake-up call as to why the space industry needs dynamic and responsive in-space infrastructure, and in this case, to extend opportunities to explore our universe,” Ron Lopez, president and managing director of Astroscale U.S., said in the statement announcing Astroscale’s work with Momentus. “The proliferation of in-space servicing and assembly allows us to reimagine how our investments are managed in space; it is the foundation on which the new space age is being built.”