Japan’s Hitomi X-ray satellite has been abandoned. The country confirmed it won’t look for the premier black-hole finding spacecraft and will cease all attempts at re-establishing contact. Japan’s space agency believes the satellite may have lost its solar panels and blames the $290 million mishap on programming error.
Japan’s space agency has given up hopes of restoring Hitomi, a $290 million X-ray astronomy satellite. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) regrettably announced the decision of not reviving the satellite, adding that it had been severely damaged and the situation was beyond salvageable. The satellite was in space for an abysmally small period of time, before it was plagued with operational problems.
The ambitious project was supposed to study black holes, galaxy clusters, and various high-energy phenomena in deep space, but is now spiraling into the unknown. With a couple of solar arrays broken off, the satellite is beyond recoverable and it would be a much logical decision to abandon all attempts at getting it back on track, added the scientists.
Hitomi was launched in February this year. The satellite was previously known as Astro-H. However, shortly after the picture-perfect launch on February 17, numerous problems and setbacks hit the project. Within just a single month, the spacecraft began uncontrollably tumbling and spinning. A couple of days later it stopped communicating and became completely unresponsive. Given the deathly silence, scientists were unable to judge the health of the satellite, but using other observational tools, they discovered a small cloud of debris around it, indicating something might have broken off and was being carried as a dust cloud around a comet.
The spacecraft was the last hope for Japan to conduct deep space exploration. The country had already suffered two failures before Hitomi. According to the scientists, the satellite, whose name means “pupil” (the black part of the eye), operated well for just a few weeks, but yielded just three days’ worth of data.
Scientists were confident of re-establishing contact with the spacecraft and nudging it back on track after receiving static signals, reported ABC News. Scientists detected these rather incoherent signals on three occasions but later realized they were from a different source. The signals appeared to come from slightly different frequencies, dashing hopes of the scientists.
What caused the Hitomi to fail? The report on probable causes of failure mentions that one of the systems which regulated the direction of the spacecraft was compromised after Hitomi passed the South Atlantic Anomaly, reported Value Walk. The “Anomaly” is a specific region above South America which exposes satellites to much more radiation than in other areas.
Owing to the failure of the primary navigational systems, Hitomi switched to a series of gyroscopes to ensure that it was facing the right way. Unfortunately these failed as well. By this time, the satellite was spinning and was about to lose control. Hence, it fired a thruster, which it thought would counter the spin, but instead, the thruster augmented the rotational acceleration. Eventually, the spin was so powerful, Hitomi’s solar arrays snapped off. These arrays are critical solar energy harvesters, which would have kept the spacecraft alive and kicking for at least a decade.
Besides the spacecraft, the Japanese space agency lost a very sophisticated and accurate X-ray calorimeter. Scientists at the agency had worked to perfect the instrument for three decades. To build another one would take about $50 million and another three to five years.
Besides the reasons that JAXA is investigating, the space agency believes the catastrophic damage might have been caused by incorrect programming that caused the satellite to accelerate its spinning, reported the Christian Science Monitor.
Hitomi was important since X-rays originating in deep space cannot be detected on Earth because our planet’s atmosphere obscures them. The Hitomi mission was a huge collaborative effort between JAXA, NASA, and eight other nations, including Canada and the Netherlands. A similar mission will now be launched by the European Space Agency (ESA), but the same won’t take off before 2028.
[Photo by Jiji Press/Getty Images]