An artist's conception of the Hitomi observatory.

An artist's conception of the Hitomi observatory.

Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA

Japan loses contact with its new x-ray space observatory

Japan’s space agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), is desperately trying to re-establish communications with its recently launched Hitomi x-ray observatory (formerly known as ASTRO-H) following a loss of contact on 26 March. Hitomi is a groundbreaking telescope that will be able to image emissions from black holes, the swirl of hot gas in galaxy clusters, and supernova remnants through high-energy photons—including x-rays and gamma rays—with unprecedented accuracy. It was launched 17 February and was still being commissioned, but at the start of operations on Saturday it failed to respond as normal.   

The U.S.-based Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), which tracks orbiting objects with radar, reported on 27 March seeing five separate objects at Hitomi’s location. But JAXA spokesperson Azusa Yabe says that the agency had received short signals from Hitomi after JSpOC reported its possible breakup.

Ground-based amateur satellite watchers also reported seeing Hitomi in a slow spin. Chisato Ikuta, deputy director of Institute of Space and Astronautical Science/JAXA’s press office in Kanagawa, says “these may help us to understand the status of Hitomi. However, we still do not know the present status of Hitomi, because we have not communicated with the satellite yet.” Yabe adds that as long as the spacecraft’s solar array is getting enough power, Hitomi should be able to communicate with Earth even if spinning. “We are still trying to recover communication with ‘Hitomi,’ and trying to find out the status and causes of this communication failure,” Yabe says.

For the time being, says Andrew Fabian of the Institute of Astronomy at the United Kingdom’s University of Cambridge, chairperson of Hitomi’s science working group, reports that the satellite is permanently lost are “groundless speculation.”

X-ray astronomers were eagerly awaiting observations from Hitomi, because it is the first major x-ray observatory launched since 1999. An earlier attempt by Japan to launch such a spacecraft failed in 2000 and a 2005 follow-up lost a key instrument after a few weeks because of technical failure. Hitomi also carries a soft x-ray spectrometer that has 30 times the resolution of previous instruments and is expected to revolutionize the field. X-ray astronomer Ken Pounds of the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom says “if lost it would be a tragedy for our Japanese colleagues and a significant disappointment for U.S. collaborators working on the microcalorimeter.”

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