The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has tracked down its $265-million X-ray satellite, the Hitomi, which it lost contact with this week (March 26). Unfortunately, it lost it again, and we don't know what's going on.
But put simply, the Hitomi is now spinning around in space doing, well, we don't know. It's still in orbit though, at an altitude of about 580 kilometers (a little over 360 miles) above Earth.
In its latest update, JAXA said, "We will continue to do our best to recover communications with Hitomi and investigate the cause of the anomaly."
This is not the first time that JAXA has encountered bad luck with a satellite.
In 2000, the ASTRO-E disintegrated when the rocket carrying it crashed at launch. In 2005, a helium leak destroyed the spectrometer of the Suzaku within weeks of its launch. Launched last February 17, the Hitomi (Japanese for “pupil of the eye") was made to study galaxy clusters, supermassive black holes, and exploding stars by observing energy wavelengths.
The Hitomi was also carrying instruments belonging to the European Space Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Canadian Space Agency. It was calibrating its equipment in preparation for its exploration when JAXA lost touch with it.
According to The Japan Times, JAXA initially thought that the Hitomi was experiencing a power issue due to a possible shift in position that affected its solar panels.
Paul Maley — an amateur astronomer and former NASA flight controller in Arizona — shared a video that he had taken a day after the Hitomi was reported missing. It shows an object that's now confirmed to be the Hitomi spinning wildly in orbit.
Meanwhile, Masaki Fujimoto — director of international strategy and coordination at JAXA's Institute for Space and Astronautical Science — said it was likely Hitomi was still mostly intact. "There’s hope for recovery unless the spacecraft is severely damaged. We haven’t given up recovery of the spacecraft," he said in a SpaceNews report.
Yet, the latest updates do not bode terribly well. According to JAXA "According to the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), it is estimated that Hitomi separated to five pieces at about 10:42 a.m. on 26. In order to investigate the situation, JAXA is observing the objects, using a radar located at the Kamisaibara Space Guard Center (KSGC) and telescopes at the Bisei Space Guard Center (BSGC) owned by the Japan Space Forum. U
p to now, the telescopes at BSGC detected two objects around the satellite’s original orbit, while the radar at KSGC identified one of them. It is confirmed that the signal received at the Santiago Tracking Station came from the orbital direction of the object identified at KSGC."
And since it has spun out of control, the antenna that should be pointing at the planets is pointing, well, in a bunch of directions, so JAXAcan’t connect for long enough to control it or to find out what happened.