Somewhere in the vast outer space, a young X-ray astronomy satellite is floating ceaselessly — alone.
Only a few weeks after its launch, Japan's ASTRO-H or Hitomi satellite went missing on March 26. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) confirmed on Saturday that it has indeed lost contact with the satellite.
Hitomi was gone too soon. What could have happened? Could JAXA eventually regain contact with Hitomi?
There are many possibilities: it could either still be whole or it could have already been broken into space debris.
What Happened to Japan's Hitomi Satellite?
Hitomi was blasted into space on Feb. 17 to study gamma rays and X-rays, and observe galaxy clusters and black holes. It was supposed to go online on March 26 at 03:40 a.m. ET. When the appointed time passed, Hitomi did not clock in.
It may or may not be a coincidence, but 40 minutes after the appointed time, the United States Joint Space Operations Center caught signals for five space objects orbiting near Hitomi.
Are these smaller pieces of the satellite? Or are these merely asteroid pebbles?
Astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said that, should the debris belong to Hitomi, they could be minor bits blowing off the satellite. It may not mean complete destruction.
In a stunning turn of events, JAXA reported on Monday, March 28, that it had picked up fleeting transmissions from Hitomi.
What's more, data for the satellite itself showed a sudden change of course.
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) March 27, 2016
Getting an empirical answer will be the tricky part. Moriba Jah of University of Arizona, Tucson said there is not enough data collection or data sharing to immediately assess what caused Hitomi's lost transmission.
But all hope is not yet lost. JAXA said it is working toward recovery of the space probe, and Jah said that the space agency is skilled at that.
"The interesting thing about the Japanese is they tend to be very good at resurrecting things that would otherwise be dead," said Jah, who is director of Space Object Behavioral Science at the university.
If there was indeed a collision, they could trace the trajectories back to when the objects were at a minimum distance from each other.
"That's probably the point at which their trajectories become one again. That could give an idea of when the collision actually occurred," added Jah.