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Japan loses contact with its newest astronomy satellite, Hitomi

It may have broken up, but no one knows for sure

JAXA

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is trying to establish communication with its new X-ray astronomy satellite, after the probe stayed silent over the weekend. The satellite, named Hitomi, was supposed to start operating at 3:40AM ET on Saturday March 26th, but the spacecraft failed to communicate with Earth at that time.

Five pieces of debris were spotted around the satellite

JAXA says it isn't sure what state the spacecraft is in, and there are fears that Hitomi may have broken apart in space. The US Joint Space Operations Center, responsible for tracking space debris, tweeted that five pieces of debris were spotted around the satellite at around 4:20AM ET on Saturday. (The time was later amended to 9:42PM ET on Friday, March 25th.) The center ultimately identified the event as a "breakup," but did not indicate what may have caused the incident.

Additionally, Paul Maley, an observational astronomer in Arizona, reported seeing Hitomi rotating once every 10 seconds or so, suggesting that it has somehow been knocked into an unintended spin. A video of Maley's, provided to National Geographic, seems to support the idea that the satellite is spinning rapidly. Hitomi appears to change brightness as it tumbles through the sky, an indication that it is rotating. "The fact that it is rotating with extreme variations in brightness indicates that it is not controlled and that some event caused it to begin its rotation," Maley told National Geographic.

On Monday, JAXA said it had received a short signal from the satellite, but did not immediately provide any more details about the communication. An additional update from JAXA on Tuesday clarified that the agency had received two signals from Hitomi — one at 9AM ET and one at 11:30AM ET on March 28th. To figure out what state the spacecraft is in, JAXA is trying to track Hitomi with ground-based telescopes and radar. The telescopes have identified at least two objects where the satellite should be, and radar has identified one of the objects. The agency said it will continue to investigate and will provide updates when they are available.

The Hitomi satellite, also known as ASTRO-H, is designed to study turbulent and energetic space events throughout the Universe. To do this, the probe has a series of instruments that can observe energy wavelengths ranging from soft X-rays to soft Gamma Rays. These will allow Hitomi to get more information about supermassive black holes, neutron stars, and the formation of galaxy clusters.

Update March 29th, 9:28AM ET: The article has been updated to include video of the spacecraft, as well as additional information from JAXA.