Monday, March 28, 2016

Japanese Hitomi (ASTRO-H) Satellite Suffers Major Malfunction

          By Henry Stewart

March 27th JSpOC tweet. Screenshot c/o Twitter.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Hitomi (ASTRO-H) X-ray astronomy satellite launched on February 17th, 2016, has suffered a major and perhaps fatal accident.

As outlined in the March 27th, 2016 JAXA press release, "Communication anomaly of X-ray Astronomy Satellite “Hitomi” (ASTRO-H)," contact with the satellite was initially lost on March 26th. 

On March 27th, the US Military Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) tweeted that the satellite had broken up into five pieces and dropped into a lower orbit in a pattern indicative of either an internal explosion or an external impact with space debris.

Later that same day,, which  shares space situational awareness services and information with international satellite owners/operators, academia and others, confirmed the JSpOC tweets by releasing the chart below, which showed that the satellite had suddenly lost altitude on March 26th, about the same time as when JAXA lost contact.

The March 27th, 2016 National Geographic Phenomena blog post, "Japan Loses Contact With New Space Telescope," quoted astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, as stating that "that some kind of “energetic event” has occurred—something more than a simple failure of communications." chart of Hitomi's sudden change in orbital altitude on March 26th along with twitter commentary from astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell. Graphic c/o National Geographic Phenomena

According to the article:
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.
As outlined in the March 28th, 2016 Christian Science Monitor post, "Japan has lost a recently launched space satellite. Where could it be?," this is the third in a series of space observatories that JAXA has tried and failed to operate.

In 2000, Hitomi’s first predecessor, the ASTRO-E space telescope, crashed at launch. Five years later, a series of cooling system malfunctions aboard the next iteration of the satellite, called Suzaku (ASTRO-EII), effectively shut down the X-ray spectrometer (XRS), which was the spacecraft's primary instrument

Hitomi was designed to detect X-rays spewing from supermassive black holes, dark matter, and other cosmic sources. It carried a Canadian built Astro-H Metrology System (CAMS), a laser alignment system used to measure the distortions in the extendable optical platform which the Hitomi satellite uses for image correction.

The CAMS system was built by the Ottawa based Neptec Design Group, in consultation with Canadian researchers.

Henry Stewart is the pseudonym of a Toronto based aerospace writer. 

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