Hubble Repair Mission in Jepardy Due to Satellite Collision Debris

by Nancy Atkinson on February 18, 2009

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Hubble Space Telescope.  Credit: NASA

Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA


The Hubble Space Telescope repair mission, STS-125 seemingly gets bad news after more bad news. The mission was already delayed due Hurricane Ike in 2008, and again when a data handling processor on the spacecraft failed. Now, the mission may be too risky for both spacecraft and astronauts following the collision of the Iridium satellite and a defunct Russian communications spacecraft last week. There may be too much debris floating around close to Hubble’s orbit, breaching the safety limits NASA has in place. Without a servicing mission by a space shuttle crew, currently targeted for launch in May, the telescope is not expected to last more than another year or two.

Astronauts on spacewalks are even more at risk than the shuttle or even Hubble, and there are five spacewalks planned during the Hubble servicing flight to replace the telescope’s batteries, install new science instruments (including a new camera) and re-apply radiation shielding.

Hubble orbits higher than the International Space Station, closer to the cloud of debris from the collision. Even before the collision, the probabilities of a debris strike for the Hubble mission were already close to NASA’s safety limit. NASA pegged the chance of a catastrophic impact to a shuttle in Hubble’s orbit at 1 in 185, just below its limit of 1 in 200.

Other debris in that orbit includes pieces of a satellite that China blew up in 2007 as part of a missile test, adding hundreds of pieces of potentially hazardous debris.

Mark Matney, an orbital-debris specialist at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, told Nature magazine that even before last week’s crash the risk of a debris impact for the shuttle already “uncomfortably close to unacceptable levels. This is only going to add on to that.”

A decision about whether to proceed with the Hubble repair mission could be made in the next week or two, Nature reports.

Sources: Discovery News, Nature

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Trippy February 19, 2009 at 1:22 PM

Well, so far, according to the NASA Shuttle misson news site, they’re still going ahead with STS 119, and STS 127, but there’s been no official release yet (that i’ve seen) that suggests that STS 125 (Hubble Service Mission 4) is going to be delayed (but I stand to be corrected on that).

KevinM February 19, 2009 at 8:06 PM

Well, maybe there is poetic justice in this. The US has been flying too high on intangible economic fantasies for the last few decades, time to come down to earth. Delayed gratification builds character and spurs sincere dreams, ambitions and effort. Easy gratification has made us self-absorbed, petulant and indolent. We will never be judged by what we achieve, but by the sincerity with which we achieve it.

JBL February 21, 2009 at 11:42 PM

My wife and I planned our trip to Disneyworld around the launch date os STS-125. I registered to be notified for when tickets went on sale and when the notification came I made sure I got up bright and early and ordered tickets for the launch the second they went on sale…lunch with an astronaut etc…the works. Then the delays. I was beyond pissed…I was hurt. My head has always been pointed skyward with a facinsation. Then I decided, for where I live, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me to see the shuttle launch (and with the nearing retirement of the shuttle program that is even more true) so I was going to go back to Florida for 3 days…the day before of and after only booking my flight the week of the launch (risky I know). Then the second I heard about the collosion my first words were “oh fff…..!!!!”

I think God wants my wife to throw the unused tickets into the scrapbook for posterity or something…cause it is looking like he sure as hell doesn’t want me using them :(

Amanda February 23, 2009 at 2:12 PM

Why not send a shuttle, which is completely magnetic, into earths orbit and let as much metal attach to it as possible then have enough fuel to remotely propel it from orbit?

IMSA12 February 24, 2009 at 7:47 PM

KevinM-
So, what does your pompous and self-righteous blather about “sincerity” “achieve”? How does the US, “flying too high on intangible economic fantasies”, have anything to do with the fact that most global accomplishment and achievement is the result of hard work, gratifying or not. Your bloviated observations and inane platitudes are those of a typical troll- irrelevant spewing.

Posters who are proposing the use of magnets, nets, etc. to catch all this stuff in orbit are forgetting that there is a lot of it (mostly non-magnetic) distributed about a huge area. More important is the fact that most of these objects, functional or not, are cranking around at blistering speed, regardless of the size. The two satellites which recently collided closed at a rate of more than 26,000 miles per hour. We might be able to temporarily clear a few tiny orbital “lanes”, but sending a few thousand Rhombas into orbit isn’t going to cut it.

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