Japan’s JAXA space agency lost communication with its new Hitomi X-ray astronomy satellite on Saturday and unsuccessfully attempted to regain control of the spacecraft on Sunday. The prognosis seems rather bleak after the US Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center revealed on Sunday that it is tracking five pieces of debris associated with the satellite.
It’s not clear if Hitomi hit a piece of space debris in its orbit about 580 km above Earth or what else could have caused the loss of communications. In any case, scientists lamented the apparent failure of an instrument that allowed them to penetrate much deeper into the relatively unstudied field of X-ray astronomy.
High-energy but very short-wavelength X-rays are absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere. To observe them, therefore, scientists must send instruments to the upper atmosphere or space itself. Thus, unlike other types of observational astronomy, X-ray astronomy is a fairly new field.
“For me, the tragedy is that this satellite was designed to operate in the hard X-ray region, an area that has been little explored in astronomy,” Nick Suntzeff, an astronomer at Texas A&M University not affiliated with Hitomi, told Ars. . “Here you’ll find black hole events, neutron star mergers, highly magnetized starquakes, and other unusual high-energy astrophysics. You’d expect some exotic sources, most of which haven’t even been predicted yet. Every time you open a new wavelength or time domain, discover objects in space that you never dreamed of.”
Hitomi was launched a little over a month ago, on February 17, aboard a Japanese H-IIA rocket. Now all the hard work between JAXA and its international collaborators, including NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, appears to have been for nothing.