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Japan Loses Touch With Hitomi Spacecraft
published during a waning gibbous moon.
03/29/2016

 

Hitomi

Credit: JAXA

Hitomi, Japan’s largest observatory that launched last month, has gone silent. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) reports that the spacecraft, which was built to comb the skies using X-ray vision, is only offering blips of communication with stations back on Earth. Though scientists have yet to determine the cause of the failure, the signal loss has put the costly mission in jeopardy.

The U.S. Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), which monitors artificial objects in Earth orbit, has been using Twitter to relay five pieces of debris were detected around the craft, indicating parts of the satellite may have broken off. Sources tell the BBC that it’s still too early to tell what has happened but pointed to a few possibilities, including a collision, or something internally related, such as a battery explosion or gas leak. The signals that have made it to Earth-based stations have been too short to determine the state of the craft.

ASTRO-H — nicknamed Hitomi, which means the pupil of an eye — is armed with sensitive telescopes that can see through obstructive gas and dust to detect the spectra that come from high-energy bodies, such as black holes and supernovas. While we can peer billions of light-years away, there are wavelengths invisible to the human eye, like X-rays and gamma rays, that can tell us a lot about how the universe formed.

The mission aims to answer looming questions, namely where galaxy clusters come from and what elements are scattered throughout the cosmos — and just how black holes become such powerful forces. It is estimated to have cost approximately 31 billion yen, or $270 million, Hitomi’s chief scientist told Spaceflight Now.

JAXA is still attempting to recover communication and observing the objects surrounding Hitomi to determine its health.