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What Missing Satellite? Why Canadian Scientists Aren't Talking About JAXA

The Hitori satellite's status is unknown, after losing contact with Earth.
Photo: JAXA

An astronomy satellite that was launched to much fanfare on February 17—NASA, Europe and the Canadian Space Agency partnered for the launch, with Japan as the lead—has lost touch with Earth, according to a release from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Designed to probe supermassive black holes at the hearts of distant galaxies, the satellite Hitomi (also known as ASTRO-H) disappeared from contact at 4:40 PM local time on March 26. The next day, the US Joint Space Operations Center reported it had found bits of space debris floating nearby.

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Scientists around the world must be watching with baited breath, to see if Hitomi can be recovered. But unfortunately, while Canadian team members were on-hand to celebrate Hitomi's launch last month, none who were contacted by Motherboard on Monday were willing talk about the satellite's status on the record—saying that it would be "awkward" or inappropriate to speak publicly before we know Hitomi's fate. (The sighting of space debris suggests that pieces have come loose, but don't confirm it's been completely ruined.)

There was only radio silence from Canadian collaborators

This level of anxiety goes to show just how high risk—and high reward—space-based astronomy can be. In 2000, an earlier version of this same instrument called ASTRO-E was destroyed shortly after launch. And part of the Suzaku satellite failed in 2005 due to a helium leak. Japan, of course, isn't alone. Space-based astronomy remains a mind-boggling feat, involving thousands of scientists and millions of dollars on each project.

Incidents like this are a stark reminder of it. "To me, it's a miracle when they do work," one scientist said, who spoke to Motherboard on condition of anonymity.

Hitomi was designed to detect X-rays spewing from supermassive black holes, dark matter, and other cosmic sources. Equipped with a NASA-built, state-of-the-art spectrometer, it was expected to tell us more about galaxy formation and the structure of the universe.

Canada's reported contribution of $10 million mostly went towards a laser alignment system, which gave its scientists a place at the table. Because of the investment, "Canadian scientists get to go to the front of the line in getting time to use this unique astronomical telescope," Luigi Gallo, an astronomy professor at St. Mary's University in Halifax, said at the time. "There is no doubt that we will be making big discoveries when it opens for business."

But on Monday, less than two days after communication was lost, there was only radio silence from Canadian collaborators, who felt they should wait for more news from JAXA before commenting publicly. One person with knowledge of the project said that the team was "worried but hopeful" that communications will be restored.

"Up to now, JAXA has not been able to figure out the state of health of the satellite," JAXA's most recent statement said, adding that an emergency headquarters has been established to investigate. Scientists been known to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Just look at Kepler. Crippled by a hardware malfunction in 2013, NASA reimagined its planet hunter and gave it a new mission. And now, it's continuing its search for other worlds.