Japan’s Troubled X-Ray Satellite Is Dead

Farewell, friend. Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA

The Japanese Space Agency, JAXA, has announced that it is not possible to recover its ASTRO-H X-ray astronomy satellite, Hitomi. The sad news follows several weeks of uncertainty after the satellite was found to be out of control in orbit.

In a statement, JAXA said they would now try to find out what went wrong with the satellite, rather than attempting to restore communications. “We will carefully review all phases from design, manufacturing, verification, and operations to identify the causes that may have led to this anomaly including background factors,” they said.

Launched on February 17, 2016, Hitomi was set to be a groundbreaking mission that would use four X-ray telescopes and two gamma-ray telescopes to probe black holes and the distant universe. Costing an estimated $286 million, the project was a joint collaboration between JAXA, NASA, and other partners.

But on March 26, things started to go wrong. While being pointed towards the center of a distant galaxy, the spacecraft began to spin wildly out of control. Observations from the ground suggested bits of the satellite may have broken off. Preliminary investigations indicate that the planned rotation caused its solar panels to snap, with some reports saying human error caused the breakage, possibly due to an errant command being sent to the spacecraft.

The team thought the mission might be salvageable, because they were receiving what they thought were signals from Hitomi. But in their statement, JAXA said these were likely from a different source, and the satellite has long been dead.

Takashi Kubota (right), space program director of JAXA, at a press conference in Tokyo yesterday announcing the end of the Hitomi mission. STR/AFP/Getty Images

“JAXA expresses the deepest regret for the fact that we had to discontinue the operations of ASTRO-H and extends our most sincere apologies to everyone who has supported ASTRO-H believing in the excellent results ASTRO-H would bring,” the agency announced solemnly. 

This failed mission goes to show that space travel, no matter how successful we continue to be, is hard. Hitomi joins a host of failed spacecraft that have been launched over the last few decades. Some, like Japan’s Akatsuki Venus mission or NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, have been recovered thanks to a bit of luck and/or ingenuity. Others, like Hitomi or Phobos-Grunt, are lost for good.

It will be 12 years until a similar satellite, ATHENA, is launched in 2028 by the European Space Agency (ESA). For Japan, and scientists around the world, it will be a long time to mourn this major loss to astronomy.

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