Both solar panels are believed to have snapped off Japan’s failed Hitomi spacecraft.

Both solar panels are believed to have snapped off Japan’s failed Hitomi spacecraft.

Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA

Death knell for Japan’s x-ray space observatory

Japan’s stricken x-ray observatory ASTRO-H (renamed Hitomi after launch) cannot be recovered, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced today. The hopes of many astronomers were riding on the mission since there has not been another major x-ray telescope launched since 1999. But following a 17 February launch that appeared to go flawlessly, JAXA lost contact with the craft on 26 March. U.S.-based tracking radars appeared to see multiple objects at the observatory’s orbital position, and ground-based satellite watchers reported seeing the craft in a slow spin.

JAXA began a thorough technical investigation and reported today that it was likely that both the craft’s solar arrays had broken off at their bases where they are vulnerable to rotation. Brief radio signals from ASTRO-H that JAXA had reported receiving after the problems developed turned out to be from some other source since JAXA says they were at slightly the wrong frequency. “Accordingly, JAXA will cease the efforts to restore ASTRO-H and will focus on the investigation of anomaly causes,” the agency’s statement says.

An earlier attempt by Japan to launch a similar x-ray spacecraft failed in 2000, and a 2005 follow-up lost a key instrument after a few weeks because of technical failure. By the time ASTRO-H was designed, technology had moved on: The craft carried a soft x-ray spectrometer with 30 times the resolution of previous instruments and was expected to revolutionize the field.