JAXA’s Astro H falls silent as troubling radar data shows debris
The ASTRO-H or “Hitomi” telescope, launched on Feb. 17, was supposed to study exotic phenomenon across the universe. On Saturday, March 27, the future of the ASTRO-H mission fell into doubt as controllers on the ground lost contact with the spacecraft – and radar showed a loss in altitude and debris in the spacecraft’s vicinity.
Reports on both SpaceFlight 101 as well as National Geographic have stated that communications with the spacecraft have been lost, that it has experienced a decrease in altitude – and that at least five pieces have been “liberated” from it.
What SpaceFlight 101 has called a serious onboard anomaly, likely suggests an end to the mission from either an in-flight explosion or external collision.
ASTRO-H/Hitomi was supposed to have a mission life of approximately three years. Some 70 different organizations, including NASA, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and the European Space Agency (ESA) were involved on the project.
National Geographic has stated that the spacecraft might not be lost and that the extra radar hits could be non-essential spacecraft elements such as insulation. At this point, it is unclear if the spacecraft is salvageable.
A Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIA 204 (F30) rocket lifted off at 5:45 p.m. JST (03:45 a.m. EST; 08:45 GMT) on Feb. 17 from the Yoshinobu Launch Complex at the Tanegashima Space Center located off the southern coast of Japan with ASTRO-H. The flawless flight of the space-based observatory is the first of three that are currently planned to take place from Tanegashima this year.
Upon reaching orbit, ASTRO-H was renamed Hitomi and placed into an orbit of 358 miles (576.5 kilometers) at apogee. The spacecraft weighed about 5,952 lbs (2,700 kilograms) and was sent aloft to study black holes, dark matter, galaxy clusters, and other high-energy objects.
After it had reached its destination high above our world, it underwent a shakedown phase of sorts with the Critical Sequence part of the flight. During this time, the spacecraft was reconfigured so as to begin the operational phase of the mission. The telescope’s core systems were activated, it extended the roughly 21-foot (6.3 meter) Optical Bench, and went through other procedures necessary to begin its primary mission. Everything appeared to be going well with the mission until this event.
Video courtesy of VideosfromSpace
As more information about this unfolding story becomes available, SpaceFlight Insider will work to bring it to you.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.