Japan's X-Ray Satellite ASTRO-H Loses Contact With Earth

Japan launched its X-ray astronomical satellite Hitomi or ASTRO-H last month to study the high-energy universe in gamma rays and X-rays, as well as to conduct observations of black holes and galaxy clusters.

In a statement released Saturday, however, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said that it has lost contact with the new space telescope.

"Communication with the X-ray Astronomy Satellite "Hitomi" (ASTRO-H), launched on February 17, 2016 (JST), failed from the start of its operation originally scheduled at 16:40, Saturday March 26 (JST)." JAXA said in a statement.

The agency said that it has not yet figured out the state of health of the satellite but it is currently conducting an investigation of the communication failure.

An emergency headquarters has been set up for recovery and investigation of the cause of the problem and the agency has so far received at least one short signal coming from the satellite.

Interestingly, the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center, which keeps track of space debris, spotted five objects within the satellite's vicinity at around the same time that it went silent. The center said that the objects appeared to be pieces of a "break-up."

Jonathan McDowell, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said that should the spotted space debris belong to ASTRO-H, they indicate some minor pieces blowing off of the satellite and may not mean complete destruction.

Dowell said it is possible that the satellite may have experienced an "energetic event" such as a gas leak or a battery has exploded, which sent ASTRO-H tumbling end-over-end.

The astronomer said that this would mean that the satellite's antenna may not be pointing where it should be so its communication with Japan's space agency was disrupted.

Dowell warned that the situation may jeopardize the mission as the satellite may not be able to get the solar energy needed by its panels. The battery may run out of power before JAXA can resume communication and try to fix it. The scientist, however, said that there may still be hope.

"I truly have not given up hope," McDowell said citing equally bad situations with space probes in the past that have been resolved. "It's a long shot - and I refuse to put a number on the probability-but there is precedent for things being this bad and it turning out OK."

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