The Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) has announced that it will no longer try to rescue its Hitomi X-ray satellite.
JAXA has revealed that Hitomi’s operations will be discontinued shortly after launch. The $300 million spacecraft was supposed to study black holes, galaxy clusters and various high-energy phenomena.
Advanced satellite lost forever
X-ray satellite Hitomi was previously known as Astro-H. The satellite began tumbling and spinning only a short while after it launched, and eventually lost contact with its controllers on the ground.
Scientists at JAXA got their hopes up when they detected signals that could have been the satellite trying to make contact, but the agency later revealed that those signals were from a different source. Far from being an unavoidable tragedy, a report in Nature claims that the loss of Hitomi could have been the result of a basic engineering error which set off a chain of unfortunate events.
The report claims that one of the systems which regulated the direction of the satellite was compromised after Hitomi passed the South Atlantic Anomaly. The Anomaly is a region over South America in which satellites are exposed to more radiation than in other areas.
JAXA counts cost of alleged basic error
Once that particular system ceased to function, Hitomi started using a series of gyroscopes to ensure that it was facing the right way. However these gyroscopes also failed, leaving the satellite to spin out of control.
This was detected by the satellite, which fired a thruster in an attempt to right itself. However as it was facing the wrong way the thruster only caused the satellite to spin even faster the wrong way.
The satellite eventually broke up, losing its solar array paddles. The arrays were supposed to keep the satellite in space so that it could gather data over the course of ten years.
Sadly the loss of the paddles means that JAXA has no way of restoring the satellite. Aside from the spacecraft itself the Japanese space agency lostan X-ray calorimeter, and an impressively accurate one at that.
Scientists had worked on the calorimeter for thirty years. It will take $50 million and three to five years to build another one for a potential future mission.
Loss of Hitomi satellite underlines risks of space exploration
Although the satellite died young, it was still able to measure how quickly gas is emitted by the Perseus galaxy cluster. It’s scant consolation for the Japanese space agency, but it means that Hitomi still made a contribution to science.
Part of JAXA’s statement reads:
“JAXA expresses the deepest regret for the fact that we had to discontinue the operations of ASTRO-H and extends our most sincere apologies to everyone who has supported ASTRO-H believing in the excellent results ASTRO-H would bring, to all overseas and domestic partners including NASA, and to all foreign and Japanese astrophysicists who were planning to use the observational results from ASTRO-H for their studies.”
Space science is moving at an impressive pace, with tentative predictions that a manned mission to Mars could take place by the 2030s. However the loss of a satellite such as Hitomi underlines the tiny margin for error in space missions.
While the loss of the satellite will hurt JAXA’s bank balance, a similar loss on a manned mission would involve a massive human cost. Scientists have to be absolutely sure that the equipment they send into space is capable of protecting the lives of astronauts.