JAXA announced the loss of its Hitomi Space Telescope

Schematic of the Hitomi space telescope's on board systems (Image NASA)
Schematic of the Hitomi space telescope’s on board systems (Image NASA)

The Japanese space agency JAXA announced the impossibility to restore at least part of its Hitomi space telescope’s functions. After the interruption of the contacts, in the course of April JAXA started an investigation in order to restore Hitomi’s functions  although the damages assessed didn’t leave much hope. The attempts were expected to go on for months, instead the situation turned out to be so bad that they were forced to declare the loss of the satellite.

In simple words, according to the reconstruction made by JAXA, on March 26 an error in Hitomi’s onboard software started a kind of domino effect that made the satellite spin so much that it got damaged. Some debris were identified near Hitomi indicating that some pieces came off as a result of the spinning.

Now JAXA announced that the most of the analysis and simulations of the accident they carried out gave as result the very likely detachment of both solar panel paddles. Their bases are vulnerable to rotation and from the beginning there was great concern that at least in part they got detached but now JAXA concluded that the deatchment was almost certainly complete.

JAXA engineers hoped to be able to restore communications with the Hitomi Space Telescope, a result essential to begin any recovery operation. This hope was based on the fact that various signals were received indicating residual activity on the satellite but their analysis showed that the frequencies were different from Hitomi’s so they came from a different source.

At this point JAXA’s investigation will only continue to determine the exact chain of problems that led to the satellite loss to prevent it from happening again in the future. However, a new mission to launch a space telescope to replace Hitomi will not be possible in the near future. There are not only engineering but also other problems such as the budget so that’s quite a blow to X-ray astronomy.

One consequence is that at the moment it’s unknown when it will be possible to test instruments such as Hitomi’s, which were supposed to bring progress in the field of X-ray astronomy. ESA is planning the ATHENA (Advanced Telescope for High Energy Astrophysics) mission but its launch is expected in 2028 and in those cases delays are easy to happen.

JAXA apologized to the Japanese people and the international partners that contributed to Hitomi’s mission such as NASA. The Japanese space agency had a number of problems in the management of space telescopes so the failure of the mission originally known as Astro-H leaves even more doubts about the future of this kind of programs. In this case there were human errors at the base of the events that got Hitomi knocked out, another hard lesson on how difficult it is to remove all software problems in an equipment as complex as a space telescope.

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