Japan's Space Agency Has Lost Contact With Its X-Ray Satellite

An artist's rendering of Hitomi. Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA

Japan may have just lost control of its latest space telescope. ASTRO-H, also known as Hitomi (meaning an eye’s pupil), is designed to study the most energetic objects in the universe, but it looks like it may have tumbled out of control and could be lost for good.

As reported by Nature, radar observations on Sunday indicated that the satellite – which was launched last month – has begun to chaotically spin around after an unexpected change in its orbital path on March 26. In addition, communications with the spacecraft have been all but lost.

Although it’s not clear what caused this unfortunate incident to occur, it’s certainly more than just a small technical fault, as Hitomi appears to have actually fragmented into at least five different pieces. This doesn’t mean that it has completely broken apart, but that debris has been seen trailing from the satellite.

Either way, Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, tweeted that this event was “much worse than just a loss of [communications]” and was perhaps an “energetic event.”

 

This situation isn’t without precedent: Only last December, JAXA’s Akatsuki (“Dawn”) spacecraft was successfully placed in Venus’ orbit – its original target – five years behind schedule, after a seemingly catastrophic engine burn appeared to condemn the mission to failure. So there is hope for Hitomi yet.

 

This satellite was specially equipped to look for gamma rays and X-rays, which are typically emitted by the most energetic, violent objects in the night sky, including black holes, quasars, neutrons stars, pulsars and supernovae. It’s a $273 million (£190 million) venture between the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the Netherlands Institute for Space Research, and its destruction would prove to be a great loss for the international astrophysics community.

JAXA did briefly acquire a small signal from the missing satellite, however, and they are working to attempt to recover it. If the damage to the telescope isn’t as bad as feared, there is a possibility it could be commandeered once more in order to complete at least part of its original mission.

 

 

This situation isn’t without precedent: Only last December, JAXA’s Akatsuki (“Dawn”) spacecraft was successfully placed in Venus’ orbit – its original target – five years behind schedule, after a seemingly catastrophic engine burn appeared to condemn the mission to failure. So there is hope for Hitomi yet.

 

 

JFK captivated the nation, and much of the world, when he announced once upon a time that “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Space science is, without a shadow of a doubt, hard. Sometimes, things do go wrong, but if we try enough times, we do get it right. Only time will tell which category Hitomi will fall into.

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