JAXA loses touch with Hitomi/ASTRO-H telescope

Japan's space agency has lost touch with a new space telescope featuring Canadian technology, just a month after launch.

Hitomi may have splintered into several pieces, reports U.S. Joint Space Operations Center

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency spokeswoman Izumi Yoshizaki said Monday that efforts to restore communication links with Hitomi or ASTRO-H since the problem began Saturday afternoon have been unsuccessful.

Japan's space agency says communication has failed with a newly launched, innovative satellite with X-ray telescopes meant to study black holes and other space mysteries.

The ASTRO-H telescope, also known as Hitomi, features Canadian technology that sharpens its vision, helping it detect a wider range of x-ray colours than other x-ray telescopes. The satellite cost 31 billion yen (about $360 million) to build.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency spokeswoman Izumi Yoshizaki said Monday that efforts to restore communication links since the problem began Saturday afternoon have been unsuccessful, and it was investigating what might have happened to the satellite, which was launched Feb. 17.

"We are really doing our best," she said by telephone in Tokyo.

She said the agency was looking into a statement from the Joint Space Operations Center, or JSpOC, the U.S. military organization that tracks and identifies objects in space, that Hitomi may have splintered into several pieces.

Whether that had happened or not is unclear, Yoshizaki said.

A video posted by Nadia Drake on National Geographic's Phenomena blog appears to show the satellite tumbling through the sky. The video was recorded by Paul Maley, an amateur astronomer and former NASA flight controller, from the ground in Arizona.

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said he suspected the satellite had suffered an "energetic event," possibly a gas leak or a battery explosion, that sent it tumbling end-over-end. That would mean its antenna isn't pointing where it needs to, which is why the satellite can't communicate with the space agency, he said.

The danger is that in that state, the satellite may not be able to draw the solar energy it needs to its panels and its battery will run down before the space agency can reconnect with the satellite and try to fix it, he said.

"Everyone's just gutted," said McDowell, who works with another high-tech space X-ray telescope, Chandra. "To hear that they've run into this piece of bad luck, it's so very sad. I know enough about how the sausage was made to know that this could have easily have happened to us. Space is very unforgiving."

With files from CBC News

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