On 18 May 2009, 570km (350 miles) above the Earth, astronaut John Grunsfeld became the last human to touch the Hubble Space Telescope. Before re-entering Space Shuttle Atlantis’ airlock at the end of the final and gruelling servicing mission, he recalled a quote from science fiction legend, Arthur C Clarke.
“The only way of finding the limits of the possible, is by going beyond them into the impossible,” he said over the intercom to the VIPs gathered in mission control. “On this mission, we tried some things that many people said were impossible… we wish Hubble the very best.”
The crew released the telescope back into orbit and, as Atlantis backed away, the glistening cylinder gradually disappeared into the void.
Today, with the Space Shuttle fleet grounded, there is no way to mount another Hubble repair mission. All being well, the space telescope will stay operational for another few years, continuing to reveal the splendour of the Universe. But over the next decade, the satellite’s components will inevitably deteriorate and its orbit decay.
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One of the most significant scientific endeavours of all time, Hubble is destined to burn apart as it re-enters the atmosphere in the early 2030s. It will go the same way as many other historic space objects – from the first satellite and Laika the space dog, to Skylab and the Mir space station.
But there may be an “impossible” alternative.
“It seems an ignominious end for such a celebrated object,” says Stuart Eves, chair of the Space Information Exchange – a UK government and industry forum for space security and infrastructure – who is a satellite engineer and expert on space debris. “Instead, in the same way we preserve historic ships, aircraft, cars and trains in museums,” he says, “we ought to look after Hubble and preserve it for posterity.”
A satellite could grapple the telescope, point it in the right direction and boost it to a higher orbit, so it stays up there for a while – Stuart Eves, Space Information Exchange
Rather than bring it back to Earth – a costly and challenging mission (successfully attempted by the Space Shuttle in 1984 with two communications satellites) – Eves is urging the US to preserve the telescope in space. Before the final Hubble servicing mission, Nasa investigated the possibility of using a robotic spacecraft to rendezvous and repair the satellite instead of astronauts. Eves would like to see the same technology adapted to keep the telescope in orbit.
“A satellite could grapple the telescope, point it in the right direction and boost it to a higher orbit, so it stays up there for a while,” he says. “Then you have the problem – as all museum curators do – of preserving your valuable asset against the ravages of time, such as radiation and the danger of it being hit by debris.”
Space Shuttles returned to Earth - but there are many other iconic space relics still in orbit (Credit: Getty Images)
His solution is to launch a small satellite – such as a shoebox-sized cubesat – into the same orbit as Hubble, to act as a sentinel or virtual curator. “You’d fly a small robotic camera around the object and make the video available to museum visitors on, for example, a VR headset,” he says. “At least then we’d have a documentary record of Hubble.”
The same cubesat technology might also be used to monitor other iconic space artefacts such as Telstar, the first TV communications satellite – launched in 1962 and still in an elliptical orbit of between around 1,000 and 5,600km (620 to 3,480 miles) above the planet – or Vanguard-1, the oldest object still in orbit.
“CubeSats have been considered for monitoring the International Space Station,” says Eves. “A high-resolution camera could fly around the station to carry out a survey of what state it’s in and whether there’s any damage to the outside you might be concerned about.”
The Vangaurd satellite - the oldest human object in orbit - could become a tourist attraction (Credit: Nasa)
It’s not only satellites in orbit around the Earth that Eves is keen to see preserved. With Nasa planning a return to the Moon, there is increasing concern that objects left behind by robotic and human missions could be disturbed or damaged by visitors. A new international organisation, For All Moonkind, has recently been set up to raise awareness of the issue (which Future has written about previously here). It proposes, for instance, new United Nations regulations to protect the landers, flags and footsteps of the Apollo astronauts.
Although there could one day be a museum on the Moon, or at least some sort of protective shelter for significant artefacts, material left behind might be worth returning to Earth.
“I support the idea that there should be some curation and preservation of objects and trace fossils like the footprints,” says Eves. “But I don’t think they should be so tight that you wouldn’t be able to derive scientific benefit from them.”
“One of the more bizarre proposals I’ve heard is to go back and retrieve the bags of astronaut poo left behind,” he says. “Space biologists will be very keen to know how well the bacteria in the faeces have stood up to the extreme space environment.” It would certainly make an unusual museum exhibit.
Will the crew of Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2009 have been the last people to get a close-up view of Hubble?
This wouldn’t be the first time lunar artefacts are returned to Earth. In November 1969, the crew of Apollo 12 brought back the camera from the robotic probe Surveyor-3 for study. Preliminary findings even suggested that the camera hosted a colony of bacteria, which had survived on the Moon. Later it was shown that the bugs were more likely to have been sneezed onto the camera as a result of poor hygiene procedures during the examination itself.
Within the next decade, there’s a very good chance that people will once again set foot on the lunar surface and see Neil Armstrong’s first footsteps for themselves. But were the crew of Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2009 the last people to get a close-up view of Hubble? Not necessarily.
The footprints from Apollo astronauts are likely to be things we would try to protect (Credit: Getty Images)
Future generations should be able to zip around the Earth in personal spacecraft to do a bit of satellite spotting. But, in the shorter term, a privileged few may once again get a close-up view of some of these historic space objects.
“Companies are talking seriously about building space hotels, what orbit might they choose?” asks Eves. “An orbit that matched with Hubble might provide something marvellous to see out of the window – as you’re looking down at the Earth it would be rather nice to see the Hubble Space Telescope Drifting by.”
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