An artist's conception of the Hitomi observatory.

An artist's conception of the Hitomi observatory.

Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA

Japan puts x-ray observatory in orbit

The largest and most advanced x-ray astronomy platform put in orbit since 1999 was successfully lifted into space today by Japan's H-IIA rocket.

ASTRO-H carries four x-ray telescopes covering soft and hard x-rays and gamma rays. The instruments are expected to reveal details about gases trapped in galaxy clusters and wafting through supernova remnants as well as the turbulent streams of material spiraling away from black holes. Scientists expect additional discoveries that can't be anticipated.

A joint project of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science and NASA, the ASTRO-H team brought together 240 scientists from 60 institutions in Japan, North America, and Europe. The liftoff from Japan's Tanegashima Space Center at 5:45 p.m. local time and subsequent separation from the two rocket stages went flawlessly. The craft was on its own 14 minutes and 15 seconds after liftoff.   

As is customary after Japanese launches, the spacecraft was given a new name, Hitomi, to replace the ASTRO-H mission designation. Hitomi means "eye" in Japanese, signifying a new eye on the universe.

Mission managers will verify the functioning of the instruments over the next several months. Full-fledged observations will begin before the end of this year.