JAXA believes there is still hope for Hitomi
On Feb. 17, 2016, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched the ASTRO-H satellite (nicknamed Hitomi after it was launched). The 31 billion yen ($360 million) satellite, equipped with X-ray telescopes to study black holes, encountered an event on orbit on Saturday, March 26, that caused communications with the spacecraft to become spotty and it has since been imaged tumbling wildly on orbit. JAXA believes, however, that the mission might still be saved.
Hitomi was launched from the Tanegashima Space Center, Japan, by a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIA rocket. It was successfully placed into low-Earth orbit at an altitude of approximately 357 miles (575 kilometers).
NASA and the JAXA/Institute of Space and Astronautical Science developed the Soft X-Ray Spectrometer (SXS), a combination lightweight Soft X-ray Telescope and X-ray Calorimeter Spectrometer.
After contact was lost, JAXA tweeted, “Although JSpOC reported that Hitomi separated into multiple pieces at May 26, 08:20 UT, we received short signals from Hitomi after that time.”
On March 29, the U.S. Air Force said there was no evidence that Hitomi had been struck by orbiting debris, and, therefore, something must have gone wrong with the satellite itself for portions of it to separate.
On March 30, Masaki Fujimoto, director of international strategy and coordination at the Institute for Space and Astronautical Science, said that, despite the debris and the loss of contact, Hitomi was likely recoverable.
“There’s hope for recovery unless the spacecraft is severely damaged,” he said. “We haven’t given up recovery of the spacecraft.”
The fact that signals, however brief, continued to be received, indicate that Hitomi did not completely break up, even though U.S. Space Command’s Joint Space Operations Center detected, at least, five pieces of debris from the satellite.
“It makes it hard to assume that the spacecraft has broken up, despite some rumors,” Fujimoto said. “During its initial operation, it was working perfectly.”
Fujimoto believes that Hitomi lost attitude control, which affected the ability of its solar panels to power the satellite’s communications. It is still unclear what caused that loss of attitude control.
JAXA has stated that a Japanese telescope had spotted two objects in Hitomi’s orbit, whereas radar detected only one. That lone object, JAXA said, was the portion that was still transmitting signals to the ground.
Fujimoto said JAXA is working on a plan to restore contact and arrest Hitomi’s rotation. “The recovery will require months, not days,” he said. “That’s the kind of timescale [we] have in mind.”
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.