Japan’s New Astronomy Satellite Goes Silent

An artist's conception of Hitomi in space. Source: JAXA

An artist’s conception of Hitomi in space. Source: JAXA

Scientists operating Japan’s Hitomi astronomy satellite lost contact with it on March 26, five weeks after it was launched. The incident occurred as they were performing initial tests.

Hitomi, called ASTRO-H before its launch on February 17, contains a suite of instruments designed to study X-rays and gamma rays emitted by high-energy phenomena around the universe, such as blackholes and dark matter. It is considered a flagship mission by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and was designed to function for three years.

The exact cause of the problem is not known although Japanese scientists have said they’re investigating. Some believe a minor gas leak or explosion on board the probe could’ve caused it to start rotating or tumbling, and turned its antenna away from Earth. Around the same time that JAXA reported the silence, the US Joint Space Operations Centre tweeted that it had observed five pieces of debris in the vicinity of Hitomi. It’s unclear if the two events are related.

Barring major damages, however, scientists have been able to recover satellites in the past. JAXA’s own Akatsuki, launched in May 2010, failed to fire an engine that would’ve got it into orbit around Venus in December that year. The probe was left orbiting the Sun for the next five years until, in December 2015, scientists managed to get it into an elliptical orbit around Venus.

India’s own astronomy satellite, ASTROSAT, was launched in September 2015 and has been online and glitch-free since mid-December. Like Hitomi, it is also geared to studying high-energy phenomena, especially in the X-ray and ultraviolet parts of the spectrum. It has been built to last five years.