The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency — also known as JAXA — is working desperately to regain communications with malfunctioning x-ray satellite, Hitomi.
According to official reports, the agency does not know why it’s experiencing communication failures, nor does it know the current health of the satellite. It’s entirely possible that the Hitomi is damaged beyond repair.
At the time communications were severed, additional agencies — including the US Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center or JSpOC — indicated that there were pieces of debris within the vicinity of the Hitomi satellite. The JSpOC classified the sighting of the debris as a “breakup” concerning the Hitomi, believing that several pieces had broken off from the satellite. The larger structure is still intact, yet it is not certain what has broken off the craft.
On March 27, two days after JAXA lost communications, several amateur observers reported through a mailing list that they had seen a series of bright flashes coming from the satellite separated by a period of nearly five to ten seconds. Flashes such as this usually happen when a satellite is spinning rapidly in orbit.
Since the Hitomi satellite is generally stabilized by a three-axis system, this could further indicate it collided with some type of debris. Neither JAXA nor JSpOC have made claims as to what could have happened to the Hitomi.
That doesn’t stop us from speculating, however. It could have collided with a piece of orbital trash or even a micrometeorite. It could have experienced an explosion due to a fuel or gas leak. Or, it could have come up against some other unforeseen danger.
One thing is certain: If JAXA cannot regain communications with the satellite, it may be lost for good.
What Is the Hitomi Satellite?
The Hitomi is a relatively new spacecraft, originally launched on February 17. Barring the immense cost of creating and launching the x-ray satellite, it has strong implications for the future of space exploration and study.
Onboard, it houses several instruments, sensors, and tools that scientists can use to conduct x-ray astronomy observations. More specifically, the Hitomi is used to detect and study astronomical objects through X-radiation.
It is essentially a space telescope — similar to the Hubble — that can be used to see much farther than standard light-based telescopes. This makes it ideal for studying long-distance space objects. JAXA was going to use this particular satellite as a means to study black holes, galaxies, galactic clusters, and dark matter.
The x-ray satellite was assembled using equipment from various agencies across the world including NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. It was a joint operation with the intent to further the exploration and study of space.
Since the spacecraft recently launched, AJAX was busy calibrating on-board instruments and conducting an initial three-month checkout phase before it would go into operation.
“While the cause of communication failure is under investigation, JAXA received a short signal from the satellite, and is working for recovery,” said the space agency in a statement.
One could say this is an incredibly expensive failure. Japan invested a total of 31 billion yen — about $270 million USD — on the project, and that’s not including financial and hardware contributions made by other countries such as the United States, Europe and Canada.
As Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics says, “We were very excited by the launch of Hitomi and looking forward to the unprecedented high spectral resolution data from its X-ray calorimeter. We’ve been trying to get one of these flying for two decades so its loss would be tragic. Let’s hope JAXA can recover it.”