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Japan Loses Contact With New Space Telescope

Hitomi, Japan's newest space telescope, was meant to study the high-energy universe -- but it may be in deep trouble. (JAXA)
Hitomi, Japan’s newest space telescope, was meant to study the high-energy universe — but it may be in deep trouble. (JAXA)

Japan has lost contact with its newest space telescope. The spacecraft, which was carrying an instrument from NASA, was intended to study the high-energy universe in X-rays and gamma rays, and observe such objects as supermassive black holes and galaxy clusters.

Radar observations indicated that Hitomi, which launched on February 17 into low-Earth orbit, is in at least five pieces—and a plot of its orbit revealed a dramatic change on Saturday, when the spacecraft lost contact with Earth.

(Update: Watch new video that shows the spacecraft tumbling in orbit.)

That means, says astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, that some kind of “energetic event” has occurred—something more than a simple failure of communications.

“Loss of comm + orbit change + radar detecting 5 pieces of debris is much worse than just loss of comm,” tweeted McDowell, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

It’s not clear exactly what has happened on board Hitomi. Scientists are currently investigating the situation, and the Japanese space agency, JAXA, reports that it has gotten a trickle of a signal from the spacecraft. That means it’s possible the five pieces detected by radar are things like insulation, rather than large chunks of debris resulting from a catastrophic explosion; it’s also possible the spacecraft is tumbling, McDowell says, and that signals from Hitomi are periodically sweeping across the Earth.

Still, despite all the bad news, the spacecraft might not be lost.

“I truly have not given up hope,” McDowell says, noting that equally bad space situations in the past have been successfully resolved. “We lost contact with SOHO for months and fully recovered it. ALEXIS had a solar panel break loose and was tumbling, but they learnt how to fly it and began science mission a couple months late. So it’s a long shot—and I refuse to put a number on the probability—but there is precedent for things being this bad and it turning out OK.”

JAXA is no stranger to second chances. Late last year, the Japanese space agency managed to place its Akatsuki spacecraft in orbit around Venus, after failing on the first try. When Akatsuki originally tried to orbit Earth’s twisted sister, a valve broke and sent the spacecraft on a long, 5-year journey through the solar system. But, eventually, Akatsuki caught up with its target and slipped into Venus’ gravitational clutches.

The moral of the story? Space is hard. Things go wrong. But if we never try, we’ll never succeed.