Hitomi, the $290 million X-ray astronomy satellite, has become useless and according to recent reports, it might remain like that.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced it ceased any efforts to restore the spacecraft, saying it is too damaged to be repaired or revived.
Hitomi was Japan’s latest attempt to explore the space by studying the X-rays emitted by dark matter, black holes, and galaxy clusters in space. Unfortunately, it has become the third failed attempt, as it only operated for a few weeks.
Hitomi – Japanese for “pupil,” as in part of the eye – only yielded three days’ worth of data before it suddenly disappeared under the radar. The misfortune struck on March 26 when JAXA’s Earth team lost contact with the spacecraft.
At first, the agency believed there were hopes of restoring the spacecraft and make it work again. Hitomi had allegedly sent static signals on three occasions, but the signals turned out to be not from the lost satellite, but from slightly different frequencies.
“JAXA will cease the efforts to restore ASTRO-H and will focus on the investigation of anomaly causes,” said the agency’s announcement.
Scientists participating in the project are now carefully reviewing all phases, from “design, manufacturing, verification, and operations,” to determine what may have caused the anomaly.
Even though there’s no official report yet detailing what led to the damage, JAXA believes an error in programming might have caused the satellite to accelerate its spinning.
Extreme spinning could have led to the solar panels snapping off, which in turn prevented the spacecraft from generating power to keep it online.
Saku Tsuneta, director of JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, said during a press conference that even though human error was definitely involved, “a bigger problem lies with our entire system as we were not able to detect those errors.”
Japan’s fail marks yet another blow for astronomers in their attempt to understand the mystery of X-rays and black holes. X-rays cannot be detected on Earth because our planet’s atmosphere blocks them.
Other national space agencies were involved in the mission, such as NASA and eight other nations, including the Netherlands and Canada.
The future of Japan’s program for space exploration is now uncertain, as it may take between three to five years to build and develop a replacement for Hitomi, according to Dan McCammon, an astronomer at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
In spite of its short life, the X-ray satellite may still provide some information. However, astronomers are still mourning the lost opportunities.
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