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Japan loses contact with new space 'scope just weeks after launch

Tanegashima, we have a problem

Update: signals received Japan's newest space telescope has mysteriously gone quiet barely a month after launch, and engineers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) are desperately trying to reestablish contact.

On February 17, the x-ray telescope ASTRO-H blasted off from Tanegashima Space Center and successfully made it into orbit, at which point it was renamed Hitomi, or Eye. Initial systems checks looked good and the telescope began deploying its equipment, but on March 26 JAXA reported a communications failure.

"While the cause of communication anomaly is under investigation, JAXA received short signal from the satellite, and is working for recovery," the space agency said in a terse statement.

"Under this circumstance, JAXA set up emergency headquarters, headed by the President, for recovery and investigation. The headquarters held its first meeting today, and has been working for recovery and the investigation of the cause."

The US Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), which tracks large objects in orbit, reported that Hitomi partially broke up on March 26, but declined to give any more details. While it sounds bad, the debris around the telescope could just be sections of insulating material that have broken off for reasons unknown.

Texan astronomer Paul Maley reported tracking the telescope a day later and took video of it apparently spinning 360 degrees every ten seconds. That's not good for a platform that's supposed to be in a stable orbit – something he said was currently not happening.

Youtube Video

"Not a chance, now," he said on the Visual Satellite Observer's mailing list.

"Typical rotation pattern that you might expect after some kind of destabilizing event occurred."

Unless the telescope can get itself back into a stable position, its communications array won't be able to send and receive signals. If that's the case, the telescope is out of action, possibly terminally so.

The cause of the failure isn't yet known. The telescope successfully deployed solar panels, extended its six-metre (20-foot) Extensible Optical Bench – an arm carrying the X-ray telescopes that make up its payload – and all appeared to be in order.

It's possible that a leak in the fuel tanks may have put the spacecraft into a spin, but the spotting of debris suggests an onboard explosion – possibly from a faulty battery, or even a collision with an orbiting piece of space debris.

JAXA is conducting round-the-clock monitoring of the situation and will report back as soon as possible. ®

Update: McDowell later Tweeted that signals have been received from the probe, so perhaps all is not lost:

Fingers crossed. ®

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