Japan's black hole telescope is in trouble

March 30, 2016 by Evan Gough, Universe Today
An artist's drawing of Japan's Hitomi observatory. Credit: JAXA/Akihiro Ikeshita

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has lost contact with its X-ray Astronomy Satellite Hitomi (ASTRO-H.) Hitomi was launched on February 17th, for a 3-year mission to study black holes. But now that mission appears to be in jeopardy.

Hitomi is a collaboration between JAXA and NASA. Its mission was to investigate how were formed and influenced by dark matter and , and to understand how form and evolve at the center of galaxies. Hitomi was also to "unearth the governing extreme conditions in and ," according to JAXA.

Japan has managed two very short communications with Hitomi, but they were very brief, and JAXA has not been able to determine the nature of the problem. Now, JSpOC, the US Joint Space Operations Center, say they have detected debris in the vicinity of Hitomi, and in a press release this morning (March 29th), JAXA says "it is estimated that Hitomi separated to five pieces at about 10:42 a.m."

Hitomi was going to be an important contribution to the fleet of space telescopes used by astrophysicists and cosmologists. It has a cutting edge instrument called the X-ray micro-calorimeter, which would have observed X-rays from space with the greatest sensitivity of any instrument so far. If all that is lost, it will be quite a blow.

There's no definitive word yet on what exactly has happened to Hitomi. Japan is using ground stations in different parts of the world to try to communicate with their observatory. It's important to note that there is no agreement that the craft has broken apart. The press releases are translations from Japanese to English, so the exact meaning of "separated to five pieces" is unclear.

It's possible that there was a small explosion of some sort, and that some debris from that explosion is in the vicinity of Hitomi. It's also possible that JAXA will re-establish communications with the craft as time goes on.

Other observatories have suffered serious problems, and have eventually been brought back under control and completed their missions. The ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) suffered serious problems at the beginning of its mission in 1995, entering emergency mode 3 times before all contact was lost. Eventually, SOHO was brought under control, and what was supposed to be a 2-year mission has lasted 20.

Universe Today will be following this story to see if Hitomi can be made operational. For readers wanting to know more about Hitomi's , read JAXA's excellent Hitomi press kit.

Explore further: Japan: Trouble reaching innovative new space satellite

Related Stories

Advanced NASA-developed instrument flies on Japan's Hitomi

February 24, 2016

Now that Japan's Hitomi spacecraft is safely in orbit, a team of NASA scientists is now ready to begin gathering data about the high-energy universe with an advanced instrument that carries never-before-flown technologies.

ASTRO-H satellite ready for launch

January 14, 2016

On 12 January 2016, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) presented their ASTRO-H satellite to the media at the Tanegashima Space Center, situated on a small island in the south of Japan. The satellite, developed ...

Recommended for you

NASA telescope studies quirky comet 45P

November 22, 2017

When comet 45P zipped past Earth early in 2017, researchers observing from NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility, or IRTF, in Hawai'i gave the long-time trekker a thorough astronomical checkup. The results help fill in crucial ...

Uncovering the origins of galaxies' halos

November 21, 2017

Using the Subaru Telescope atop Maunakea, researchers have identified 11 dwarf galaxies and two star-containing halos in the outer region of a large spiral galaxy 25 million light-years away from Earth. The findings, published ...

Cassini image mosaic: A farewell to Saturn

November 21, 2017

In a fitting farewell to the planet that had been its home for over 13 years, the Cassini spacecraft took one last, lingering look at Saturn and its splendid rings during the final leg of its journey and snapped a series ...

4 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

BartV
2 / 5 (2) Mar 30, 2016
The JAXA news release says that Hitomi has split into 2 pieces.

Looks like they created another big chunk of space junk.

tblakely1357
3 / 5 (2) Mar 31, 2016
Space aliens or Chicoms? Neither particularly like the Japanese.
Osiris1
1 / 5 (1) Apr 01, 2016
That is the verrry LAST time that the Japanese or anyone else is gonna name a satellite "HIT..ME"!
Osiris1
1 / 5 (1) Apr 02, 2016
It is only 575km high, so it is possible to create some kind of servicing satellite, even a manned one, to go fix it. Such a repair craft should be powered with appropriate real space propulsion of the solar electric kind, maybe an ''em-drive" ship that needs no fuel and can go anywhere but down deep gravity wells. Such a ship could ideally have a base on the International Space Station. More probable the Chinese would build it for they seem to have more open minds less joined at the hip with our runaway greedy petro-chemical industry.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.