• Julie Kitzer

Black Hole Telescope Disappears

This past Thursday, Japan made the decision to abandon their $273,000,000 satellite shortly after its launch.

The satellite, Hitomi, was designed to give astronomers new data on black holes and galaxy clusters. Hitomi was initially launched on February 17 by Japan's Aerospace Exploration agency (JAXA). Shortly after the expensive satellite reached orbit, JAXA lost contact with it on March 26. The agency was initially optimistic about regaining control of the satellite, stating it had received three short signals in the days after the anomaly.

Photo courtesy of jaxa.jp

Jaxa admitted that they lost control of it on March 26 and said it was no longer communicating with the agency despite their attempts. Satellite tracking organizations spotted debris around Hitomi, meaning pieces may have broken off. There was initial fear that the satellite may have disintegrated. Through further investigation it was confirmed that the satellite had broken up into multiple pieces. The satellite was expected to yield collect data for ten years, however it only collected three days worth of data before malfunctioning.

Japan has had a string of bad luck with its x-ray satellites. This is the third time that something has gone wrong with one of Japan's x-ray satellite missions. The precursor to Hitomi was destroyed in a rocket failure in 2000. In 2005, a follow up mission was made and it successfully made it to space, however it lost its main instrument to a coolant failure.

Saka Tsuneta, director of JAXA's institute of Space and Astronautical Science, admitted in a press conference that "there were human errors. But a bigger problem lies with our entire system as we were not able to detect those errors."

Photo courtesy of jaxa.jp

"We will carefully review all phases from design, manufacturing, verification, and operations to identify the causes that may have led to this anomaly, including background factors," JAXA announced in a public statement.

In a statement made on Thursday, JAXA also acknowledged that the signals they believed to have receiving from Hitomi actually had a different frequency. This meaning that the signals were originating from an entirely different satellite. After alluding to their own analyses and “information from several overseas organizations,” the statement said “JAXA will cease the efforts to restore [Hitomi] and will focus on the investigation of anomaly causes."

The loss of Hitomi is a setback for JAXA, but also many other space agencies. The x-ray satellite received contributions from NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. These contributions included an x-ray instrument developed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Hitomi was the largest mission of this decade for x-ray astronomers. During the press conference JAXA expressed deep regret over this loss.

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