Communication failure sparks fears for important Japanese astronomy satellite

The Hitomi (Astro-H) X-ray satellite(Credit: JAXA)

There could be trouble in orbit for Japan's recently launched X-ray Astronomy Satellite, "Hitomi" (ASTRO-H). The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) lost touch with Hitomi on Saturday and the presence of debris in the vicinity puts the health of Japan's flagship spacecraft in question.

In a statement on Sunday, JAXA said it had received a short signal from the satellite, but "has not been able to figure out the state of health of the satellite" and was continuing to investigate the communication failure.

The brief statement from the space agency was made more ominous by a report from the US Joint Space Operations Center, which tracks man-made objects in orbit. The office identified what it calls a "breakup" of Hitomi on Saturday, including identifying five pieces of debris that have apparently separated from the spacecraft.

"The pieces could be blown off insulation from an over-pressure event in one of the instruments," Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who works on other X-ray satellites including Chandra, said on Twitter Sunday. "'Debris' doesn't mean Hitomi's in little pieces. It means little pieces have come off it. Satellite might be basically intact,we don't know."

McDowell said it is too early to write the satellite's obituary, but he is not optimistic about its fate.

Hitomi launched in February with development help from NASA and other space agencies. The space observatory carries four X-ray telescopes and two gamma-ray detectors designed to look for clues to the origins of the universe and its most mysterious objects, like black holes.

For more details on Hitomi, check out the promotional video from JAXA below:

Sources: JAXA, Twitter(1), (2)

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