Spaceflight Insider

Japan ends efforts to restore contact with Hitomi X-ray telescope


The ASTRO-H spacecraft, or Hitomi, was supposed to study the energetic processes in the universe, such as X-rays emitted from a black hole. Image Credit: JAXA

The ASTRO-H telescope, also known as Hitomi, suffered an anomaly on March 26 of this year (2016), which resulted in the vehicle ceasing communications with controllers on the ground and separating into multiple pieces. Efforts by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to restore the spacecraft were ended on April 28. The agency will now focus on investigating the cause of the incident.

Hitomi was supposed to study exotic phenomena in the universe, such as high energy X-rays from a black hole. On March 26, however, radar showed the telescope had lost altitude and there was debris spotted in the spacecraft’s vicinity.

Hitomi launch

Hitomi rode to orbit atop an HII-A rocket on Feb. 27, 2016. Photo Credit: JAXA

“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,” JAXA said in a press release.

On March 30, Masaki Fujimoto, the director of internal strategy and coordination at the Institute for Space and Astronautical Science, said the $360 million spacecraft was likely recoverable. However, after a rigorous technical investigation, JAXA concluded that it was highly likely that both solar array paddles had broken off at their bases where they rotate to track the Sun and could no longer charge the spacecraft. The reason for this incident is not yet known but the agency has said that they will continue to study the data.

The Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) reported that the spacecraft had separated into multiple pieces back on March 26, but on March 29, the U.S. Air Force said that there was no evidence that Hitomi had been struck by orbiting debris and, therefore, something must have happened with the satellite itself. Additionally, amateur astronomers around the world reported seeing the telescope tumbling.

JAXA has said that the agency originally had hoped to restore communication with the telescope, since they thought they had received signals from the vehicle three times after the event. It has since been concluded that those signals were not from Hitomi as they were not on the right frequency.

“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,” the agency said.

Hitomi was launched atop a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIA 204 rocket at 5:45 p.m. JST (08:45 GMT) Feb. 17 from the Tanegashima Space Center located off the Coast of Japan. The telescope was delivered to an orbit of about 358 miles (576.5 kilometers) and weighed about 5,952 pounds (2,700 kilograms). It was supposed to have a mission life of about three years. Some 70 different organizations, including NASA, were involved with the project.

Video courtesy of Paul Maley


Derek Richardson is a student studying mass media with an emphasis in contemporary journalism at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. He is currently the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also writes a blog, called Orbital Velocity, about the space station. His passion for space ignited when he watched space shuttle Discovery leap to space on Oct. 29, 1998. He saw his first in-person launch on July 8, 2011 when the space shuttle launched for the final time. Today, this fervor has accelerated toward orbit and shows no signs of slowing down. After dabbling in math and engineering courses in college, he soon realized that his true calling was communicating to others about space exploration and spreading that passion.

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