Japan’s Newest Satellite Goes Silent, Sparking Fears It Disintegrated

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The satellite Hitomi lost communication with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency on Saturday. JAXA

A Japanese satellite recently sent into orbit to study black holes and distant galaxies lost contact with its operators last weekend, sparking fears that the $273 million project has been destroyed.

The satellite, named Hitomi, was launched on February 17 to observe how galaxies are formed and how dark matter is distributed in galaxy clusters. But a little more than a month later, Hitomi lost contacted with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) on Saturday afternoon.

For the past two days, JAXA has had all hands on deck to try to find the satellite, setting up an emergency headquarters operated by 40 technicians to find what happened to Hitomi and attempting to communicate with it. “While the cause of communication anomaly is under investigation, JAXA received short signal from the satellite, and is working for recovery,” reads a statement from JAXA on Sunday.

Bad news about Hitomi’s fate came from the American Joint Space Operation Center (JSpOC), which tracks all artificial satellites in orbit. On Sunday morning, the JSpOC tweeted that it detected five floating pieces where the Hitomi should be. JAXA initially cast doubt that the debris was Hitomi on Sunday as it received short signals past the time the JSpOC detected the pieces. But six hours later, JAXA conceded that the JSpOC was right all along.

It is unclear how the Hitomi was torn into five pieces. The debris however could be minor pieces that were blown off Hitomi, as opposed to its being completely destroyed, Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell tells Nature.

NASA, the European Space Agency, the Netherlands Institute for Space Research and the Canadian Space Agency all partnered with JAXA to build Hitomi—which means “pupil of the eye” in Japanese. NASA, for example, provided JAXA with two soft X-ray telescopes.

“We see X-rays from sources throughout the universe, wherever the particles in matter reach sufficiently high energies," explains Robert Petre, chief of Goddard's X-ray Astrophysics Laboratory in a NASA feature on Hitomi. "These energies arise in a variety of settings, including stellar explosions, extreme magnetic fields, or strong gravity and X-rays let us probe aspects of these phenomena that are inaccessible by instruments observing at other wavelengths."