Hubble Repair Mission in Jepardy Due to Satellite Collision Debris

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

25 Replies to “Hubble Repair Mission in Jepardy Due to Satellite Collision Debris”

  1. I thought the collision happened around 750km up. According to wikipedia, Hubble is around 559km. Have the debris orbits decayed that quickly? Or was a bunch of junk shot out into all kinds of new crazy orbits?

  2. “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.”

    So that was allready below the lower limit. So what is the “real” limit?

    Also, if in Hubble’s orbit the chance on a catastrophic impact is that high, how come Hubble is still there?
    The total Hubble in orbit time is well and truly a lot higher then 200 shuttle missions combined.

  3. HORRIBLE NEWS! That is like hearing of a death in the family. Very Very sad! So much could have been learned. Always more bad news than good in this field.

  4. WHAT? We have become so risk averse as a society, that we can’t make the mission.

    It’s a shame! Yes, really! We want to go to Mars, but actually, we can’t go even to Hubble 🙁

  5. The category is spellchecked headlines: The following author never played “Jeopardy”….


    Getting serious, both countries dropped the ball. It’s most surprising that the US’s mil tracking network did not foresee this.

  6. Unfortunately, such a collision causes the junk to scatter enough to cause each piece of junk to have a trajectory to finally have its own new orbit. it’s true both countries dropped the ball, however, human nature being what it is, mistakes will be made and will continue to be made until we are extinct.
    I hope the HST can function enough until there is a fix and get a new space telescope up in orbit.

  7. My understanding is that the collision was on the list of collisions that “could happen” that are generated each day, but they were predicted to pass within something like 35km of each other, so it didn’t make it onto the list of things to watch out for – there were substantially closer passes predicted for that day.

  8. Mere words simply cannot express how pissed off this makes me. Three outrageously unlikely scenarios have now played out to screw Hubble and the entirety of the scientific community, and hence the rest of the world, over.

    Why do you hate Hubble so much God!? WHY!? Answer me, damn it!!!

    The friggin’ Ruskies and Iridium LLC should pay for a new Hubble.

  9. There must be some way to clean up the mess up there. We have a potential domino effect on our hands that could wipe out most of the satellites in orbit. What if we built a satellite that had a couple of huge electro magnets on it? As it makes its orbit it would clean up the junk along the way. Or maybe some sort of huge net strong enough to catch and hold the debris. Come on people…THINK. This is a global problem and we all need to work toward a solution.

  10. I like your electromagnet idea. Have to be a pretty bloody big electromagnet, and if it was that big it’d perturb the orbits of other satellites or fry them. But it’d be cool.

  11. It wouldn’t do much for non-metallic debris either. How about a giant vacuum cleaner pulled behind the space shuttle? Would that work in the vacuum of space? Or swarms of little robots like Wall-E. They could move around with little ion engines and collect the stuff and then bring it all to a central point for recycling.

  12. an idea for using the solar power collected in space:

    1) create huge magnetic fields between constellations of satellites
    2) metallic junk passing through those fields will loose some of its kinetic energy with each pass through one of those fields, and hopefully slow down enough, eventually, to de-orbit.
    3) recover this lost kinetic energy as electricity, and use it to supplement the power supply of the field generators.

    Active satellites should be able to compensate and not de-orbit, if their designers did a good job.

    It’ll be a slow process, but I reckon it may work. NEO space is huge, but little by little, as years and decades pass, this may be a good way to set about cleaning things up.

  13. Sean O’Keefe will finally get his way, I see.

    The debris issue is just an excuse not to do the mission and save a few dollars in the NASA budget.

    The satellite debris is still too high up to threaten HST or any Space Shuttle repair mission for a long time to come.

    NASA has a bad habit of dropping support for what they deem to be “old” missions no matter how popular or successful they have been.

    HST may be an icon of the space program in the eyes of the public, who foot the bills for NASA as taxpayers, but they are counting on the same public to forget about HST as it is quietly left to shut down and then burn up in the atmosphere, as they figure the public is too worried about the economy to focus on one space telescope that has literally revolutionized our understanding of the Universe.

    And the few space geeks who complain – NASA really doesn’t care about them at all. They’re a government bureaucracy, don’t forget.

    Too bad the Chinese aren’t far enough along in their space program to rescue HST from oblivion. I bet they would do it if they could. Maybe the Russians….

  14. “adding hundreds of pieces of potentially hazardous debris.”

    Try hundreds of thousands of pieces of potentially hazardous debris. NASA estimates that 150,000 pieces of debris 1cm or larger were created by the destruction of the chinese satellite. The cosmos/iridium collision may well have doubled that amount.

    As robbi points out it’s not so much that the orbits have decayed it’s because some debris is pushed into more elliptical orbits with perihelion closer to earth.

    As to why Hubble is still there despite being in a dangerous orbit, well for one thing the two most recent debris causing events are both less than a year old. Secondly Hubble has probably been hit multiple times over its life. But most of the telescope is just empty volume or solar panel. Finally this is another reason that the servicing mission should be re-considered – the expected lifetime of the Hubble has been significantly shortened even if it does get repaired. What’s the point in spending some 500M dollars to service the telescope when it might only last another year before it gets clobbered by debris?

    The electromagnet idea is just silly.

    @Zvezdichko : What’s your limit on the risk then? I in 100, 1 in 50? Bear in mind that the in-orbit loss of a shuttle would kill – as in permanently – the US manned space program.

  15. 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).

  16. 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.

  17. 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 🙁

  18. 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?

  19. 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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