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.