Starts With A Bang

The Hubble Space Telescope Is Falling (Synopsis)

The Hubble Space Telescope, as imaged during the last and final servicing mission. Image credit: NASA.

“When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways – either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength.” -Dalai Lama

Orbiting at hundreds of miles above Earth’s atmosphere, you’d think the Hubble Space Telescope would be safe and stable for a long time. But despite our definitions, Earth’s atmosphere doesn’t “end” and space doesn’t “begin” when we get 60 miles (100 kilometers) up. Instead, Earth’s atmosphere continues, albeit tenuously, for incredible distances, until it eventually merges with the solar wind. It’s the fourth (of five) layers that contains the Hubble Space Telescope: the thermosphere.

The layers of Earth’s atmosphere, as shown here to scale, go up far higher than the typically-defined boundary of space. Every object in low-Earth orbit is subject to atmospheric drag at some level. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Kelvinsong.

Although each oxygen molecule might travel for a kilometer before striking another, the presence of these molecules is enough to slowly produce a drag on Hubble. Over the timespan of years and decades, it loses altitude and begins to fall. If we do nothing, then by the late 2020s to the mid-2030s, it will uncontrollably de-orbit on its own. Our greatest optical observatory will be lost, and there are no plans to save it.

The soft capture mechanism installed on Hubble (illustration) uses a Low Impact Docking System (LIDS) interface and associated relative navigation targets for future rendezvous, capture, and docking operations. The system’s LIDS interface is designed to be compatible with the rendezvous and docking systems to be used on the next-generation space transportation vehicle. Image credit: NASA.

Come learn how the Hubble Space Telescope is falling, what we can do, and why we need to act now.