To Scientists Around the World, Save Private Hubble

There are two years left, altogether and for everyone, to save the soldier hubble. Thirty-two springs after its launch, the emblematic space telescope, which orbited, when fired, 600 kilometers from Earth, now rotates in circles, according to NASA, only “about 540 kilometers”. At that rate, it could re-enter the atmosphere and therefore disintegrate by 2037. Unless a rescue mission gently docks this famous shuttle-sized instrument and manages to raise its orbit. That, before 2025, and the threshold of 500 km below which, according to the American space agency, the “rendezvous” would become too delicate.

And this spectacular yo-yo space operation has been more than a hypothesis since Christmas Eve. On December 22, NASA officially launched a “request for ideas” to find a private partner capable of achieving this technical feat, first for Hubble, but also more generally for other “aging” satellites that would need to increase their orbit to prolong your scientific life. life.

For fame and posterity

The name of SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, with its Crew Dragon buses, was already circulating before the launch of the call. And if other candidates want to present themselves, they must do so by January 24, the deadline for submitting applications. They also have to do it for the glory. The summons stipulates that the mission, its technological developments and the risks of failure incurred would be the responsibility of the eventual operator.

“From a communication point of view, being the company that relaunches the Hubble spacecraft that everyone knows about is a big blow. Especially when you’ve already sent a Tesla into space. It is also a way of putting the scientific community on your side”, analyzes Olivier Berné, astrophysicist year at the CNRS, at the astrophysics and planetology research institute (Irap) in Toulouse.

Because he’s still valuable despite James Webb

For researchers in astronomy, there is not the slightest hesitation to have. Even if the other star of interstellar vision, the new James Webb telescope, which sees “further” is now operational, Hubble’s lifespan should also be extended. “This is very, very good news, it welcomes Thierry Contini, another astrophysicist from Irap. Because Hubble’s observations in the visible range are still widely used and are complementary to those of James Webb able to see in the infrared or ultraviolet.” The scientist also admits to a “sentimental” attachment to the Hubble he started with. “It continues to provide extremely valuable data for a large number of researchers, adds Olivier Berné. James Webb is often somewhat mistakenly presented as Hubble’s successor. This is historically true, but not scientifically. Because they know how to do different things”.

By the way, the nominal life expectancy of James Webb, who travels in an orbit much farther than his eldest son, is five years. The most optimistic people multiply this hope by four, but when they run out of fuel it will be very difficult to intervene on it, as has been done several times on Hubble, in 2009 for example, thanks to the crew of one of the last American shuttles Atlantis. Hubble is not in the realm of “disposable”, it is sustainable.

By the dizzying vistas it opened

Finally, if there was one last reason to save Hubble, it would be for the service rendered. “It really is an iconic instrument. If there is a space mission that everyone knows from the Apollo missions, this is it”, explains Olivier Berné. “With its first deep fields in the direction of distant galaxies, it allowed us to go back in cosmic time and make a great advance in observational astronomy”, recalls Thierry Contini. “Thanks to him, we know that the universe is filled at all distances and at all times with billions and billions of galaxies; that there are many other parallel worlds, in the sense that there are many other galaxies that look like ours, within which there are also billions of stars that look like our Sun. Leave the doubt”, enthuses the colleague.

Suffice it to say that if NASA embarks on this incredible “uplift” of Hubble’s orbit, it will have white-coated supporters in labs around the world. They will hold their breath during this more than complicated robotic maneuver. In fact, it will be necessary, first, to approach the space telescope carefully so as not to damage it, and then to give it the necessary thrust to make it find more favorable skies.

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