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The future of Hubble and a mission to Saturn’s moon Titan

The Hubble Space Telescope hovers at the boundary of Earth and space in this picture, taken after Hubble second servicing mission in 1997. Hubble drifts 353 miles (569 km) above the Earth's surface, where it can avoid the atmosphere and clearly see objects in space.
The Hubble Space Telescope hovers at the boundary of Earth and space in this picture, taken after Hubble second servicing mission in 1997. Hubble drifts 353 miles (569 km) above the Earth's surface, where it can avoid the atmosphere and clearly see objects in space.

Hubble is starting to show its age

Since 1990, The Hubble Space Telescope has been in space on a mission to observe our universe like never before. It has captured iconic space images for the public and delivered unique astronomical observations to the science community.

Hubble has been in low Earth orbit for over thirty years, and still is operating. But the telescope has lost one of its gyroscopes, which is a part of its pointing system. NASA said it has a plan to keep it in operation with just one of the three gyroscopes.

Billionaire Jared Isaacman proposed a private mission through SpaceX to attempt to save Hubble, but NASA has waived off that offer.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR’s science correspondent, said NASA’s hesitation comes from the idea of repairing Hubble and that those repairs may not extend its lifespan but rather hurt the telescope.

“If you wanted to put hardware on the outside of Hubble, you would have to connect that hardware to its power and its data,” Greenfieldboyce said. “And that would mean going outside. And so far, nobody's done a spacewalk from a SpaceX capsule yet. Jared Isaacman and his team plan on trying that very soon in their first Polaris flight, but they haven't done it yet.”

During a NASA press conference, NASA’s Mark Clampin said they have reviewed the available ideas and proposals but will not pursue them at this time.

“He basically said that they had studied the available commercial capabilities and decided not to pursue a reboost at this time, and he was asked more specifically about the Polaris mission because Jared Isaacman has made some comments on social media,” Greenfieldboyce said. “He said the team that performed the technical analysis made a formal recommendation. And so, Mark Clampin was asked about that. He said, it wasn't a go no go kind of thing.”

From stunning photos to advancing space exploration, Hubble has contributed extensively to scientific research during its time in Orbit. Greenfieldboyce said Hubble will have a lasting impact on the public and scientific community.

“I think that in general, it was a big science astronomy project that was a resounding success,” Greenfieldboyce said. “It brought together the two parts of the NASA's portfolio, human spaceflight and the science part that don't often come together in quite the same way. It's an interesting example of what can be done in space for science. With the help of astronauts from that perspective, I think it's going to it's going to have a legacy.”

A new mission to the moon, but it’s not our moon, it’s Saturn’s

There is a lot of excitement about NASA’s upcoming moon missions, a new mission has joined the frenzy, but it isn’t a mission to Earth’s moon -- it’s a mission to one of Saturn’s.

NASA’s Dragonfly mission is targeted to launch in 2028. The autonomous rotorcraft will fly to the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan, studying the chemical composition of the surface and searching for signs of possible life that may have existed on Titan.

A Clear View of Titan Surface.
NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
A Clear View of Titan Surface.

With these findings, scientists hope that Titan holds the answers to life originated on our own planet. NASA’s Elizabeth “Zibi” Turtle, the principal investigator on the Dragonfly mission, said although the moon is very far away from Earth, the landscape is very similar.

“There's methane, rain, and lakes and rivers and seas, which is spectacular,” Turtle said. “Titan is the only moon in the solar system that has an atmosphere, and that atmosphere is actually denser than Earth's atmosphere. So, that's one of the reasons it's really, really exciting to explore there because it's this very Earth like world, even though it's in the outer solar system and very different materials.”

Although Titan is like Earth, there are significant differences. Turtle said the mission is a chemistry mission to discover why these similarities between Earth and Titan exist considering the difference in temperature.

“Titan is very cold, it's 94 Kelvin, that's minus 290 Fahrenheit,” Turtle said. “It's almost unimaginably cold for someone living on the surface of our nice warm oasis on Earth. The environment there is certainly not conducive to life as we know it. We have no evidence suggesting that chemistry on Titan has taken the leap to biology, that chemistry here on Earth clearly did.”

Because humans have not journeyed to other planets let alone other moons, the Dragonfly mission will be autonomous, using a drone to survey the moon’s environment.

“Each Titan day is about two weeks long,” Turtle said. “And the plan with Dragon Fly is to fly every other Titan day. So, we spend almost all the time on the surface, making measurements, sending data back and forth to Earth commands. Each flight will actually be 20 to 30 minutes or so. And we'll cover several kilometers in that timeframe.”

Marian is a multimedia journalist at Central Florida Public Media working as a reporter and producer for the 'Are We There Yet?' space podcast.
Brendan Byrne is Central Florida Public Media's Assistant News Director, managing the day-to-day operations of the newsroom, editing daily news stories, and managing the organization's internship program. Byrne also hosts Central Florida Public Media's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration, and the weekly news roundup podcast "The Wrap."
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