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Japanese X-ray satellite loses communication with Earth

Future of the major astronomy probe remains unclear as pieces of space debris are reported.

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The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) lost contact with its flagship X-ray astronomical satellite, Hitomi, on 26 March. The observatory, launched on 17 February, had been going through initial check-outs and calibrations.

Hitomi's status remains unknown as JAXA engineers work to re-establish communication. Ominously, the US Joint Space Operations Center, which tracks space debris, reported spotting five objects in the vicinity of the spacecraft around the time that it went silent. The centre characterized the objects as pieces of a “break-up”.

The space debris could consist of minor pieces that were blown off Hitomi, as opposed to indicating complete destruction, says Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and space analyst at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Hitomi, which was known before launch as ASTRO-H, is designed to study X-rays streaming from cosmic phenomena such as black holes, galaxy clusters and dark matter. It carries a high-resolution spectrometer to measure X-ray wavelengths in exquisite detail. Earlier versions of the same instrument have twice met a grim fate on JAXA missions: in 2000, the ASTRO-E telescope crashed on launch, and in 2005, a helium leak aboard the Suzaku satellite crippled its spectrometer within weeks of launch.

Hope for recovery

JAXA lost contact with Hitomi at 4:40 p.m. Japan time on 26 March. “The cause of the communication failure is under investigation,” the agency said. It has, however, received at least one short signal from the satellite since then, and is working on possible ways to start talking to it again.

Agency engineers have pulled off spaceflight recoveries before. In December, JAXA placed the Akatsuki spacecraft into Venus orbit, five years after a failed engine burn seemed to doom the mission. And in 1993, a US X-ray mission named Alexis made it into orbit, but was not heard from for three months. Spacecraft engineers eventually recovered it, and it went on to do its planned X-ray science.

International partners on the Hitomi project include NASA, the European Space Agency, the Netherlands Institute for Space Research and the Canadian Space Agency.

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