NASA’s most famous observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, will get a much anticipated life extension after all. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin announced on Tuesday that a space shuttle will be sent to upgrade Hubble and add a few years to the lifetime of the venerable queen of the sky.
It’s difficult to both cheer and heave a sigh of relief at the same time, but I have to admit to a sensation akin to both upon reading this article.
Hubble is indeed in an entirely different orbit to that which the ISS occupies. Hubble’s orbit is much ‘flatter’ across the equator than the ISS and some 200 kms higher. NASA’s shuttles aren’t buses capable of making multiple stops along the way. From the time a shuttle leaves the pad in Florida it’s fuel load and longevity in orbit are pre-determined to a specific place and point in time. There is no additional fuel carried for orbital plane changes, which is what would be required were something to go awry. Once at Hubble, there’s only one other place for a shuttle to go, and that’s back down to Earth. There can be no taking refuge at the ISS.
Certainly, there is risk involved in going to Hubble for one last servicing mission to carry the old girl through until the James Webb Space Telescope is ready to replace her. From my perspective, and also that of a world full of astronomers, the risk is far more worthwhile than continual trips to a white elephant posing as a unified place in space where antagonist political ideologies can look as though diplomacy is a reality in space, if not on the ground.