Japan’s Hitomi X-Ray Satellite Loses Contact With Earth

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Japan’s recently launched X-ray satellite Hitomi lost communications with Earth over the weekend. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said in a statement that the problem began Saturday afternoon, and the current condition of the satellite is unknown. The agency is trying to reconnect with Hitomi that was launched on February 17. It was designed to study X-rays emanating from black holes and galaxy clusters.

JAXA trying to re-establish contact

JAXA had developed the satellite in collaboration with NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. The Japanese agency has set up emergency operation to re-establish contact with the observatory. JAXA was calibrating its equipment before the satellite could begin exploring the universe at 3:40 a.m. ET on Saturday. But it failed to send signals to Earth at that time.

A JAXA official said the agency would not be able to start astronomy research that was scheduled this summer if the problem continues. Hitomi was a $273 million project. It was supposed to orbit at an altitude of 360 miles above Earth. It is not Japan’s first space observatory to run into troubles, though. Hitomi’s first predecessor ASTRO-E disintegrated in 2000 when the rocket carrying it crashed at the time of launch. In 2005, another satellite called Suzaku broke its spectrometer just weeks after launch.

US astronomer captures video of Hitomi

A video taken by a US astronomer showed the X-ray satellite spinning wildly in orbit. The object that looked like Hitomi could be seen shining and then turning extremely dark in quick intervals. The extreme changes in brightness indicate that its sunlight-reflecting side is moving turbulently. It was flying in the south-southeastern sky. Saku Tsuneta, director of JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, said the agency was “taking this situation very seriously.”

The Japan Times reported Monday that Hitomi might be experiencing power shortage due to a shift in its position that might have blocked power from reaching its solar panels. Separately, the US Joint Space Operations Center said there were about five objects circulating near the satellite around the same time it stopped communicating with Earth.

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