The Hitomi spacecraft has been declared officially dead in space by officials of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the Japanese space agency. This development is a serious loss for astronomers around the globe.

Launch of the $273 million mission, designed to detect black holes, appeared to go smoothly on February 17. The observatory was lifted into space on top of an H-IIA rocket. However, problems developed five weeks after liftoff, and controllers were only able to establish intermittent communications with the craft. Engineers made numerous attempts to regain control of the X-ray observatory, but those efforts have now been suspended.

"We concluded that the satellite is in a state in which its functions are not expected to recover. I deeply apologise for abandoning operation [of Hitomi]," said Saku Tsuneta, director general of JAXA's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science.

A software error is now believed to be the cause of Hitomi's demise. The vehicle, likely, was unable to correctly orientate itself in space. With erroneous data, computers onboard the craft apparently gave the command for a maneuvering rocket to fire continuously, causing the vehicle to tumble out of control. This resulted in the observatory breaking apart into at least 10 pieces.

JAXA noted a failure of the Star Tracker onboard Hitomi, designed to orientate the observatory, a few weeks after launch. The system encountered problems each time the vehicle passed over the South Atlantic Anomaly, a region of space where the Van Allen Belts come the closest to our planet. This issue should not have been severe enough to result in the loss of the vehicle, but it set off a series of errors which doomed the craft.

One astronomical observation made by the craft before it was destroyed was recording the movement of gases within a cluster of galaxies. This data was recorded by a high-resolution spectrometer, the third design of a model destroyed in a pair of previous spacecraft failures.

The next X-ray telescope capable of carrying out observation similar to those planned for Hitomi is scheduled for launch by the European Space Agency in 2028.

Japan has a vigorous space program, sending both commercial and scientific payloads into orbit. In addition, space travelers from The Land of the Rising Sun have ridden aboard the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Hitomi is the Japanese word for eye, but this eye on the sky has now closed forever.

Photo: Adam Lofting | Flickr

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