Japan’s Lost Hitomi Satellite Phoned Home. Can It Still Be Saved?

Japan says it received two brief communications from Hitomi since losing contact.
March 30, 2016, 2:05pm
Photo: JAXA

Ever since Japan's ambitious X-ray astronomy satellite Hitomi dropped out of contact with Earth on March 26, scientists around the world have been working furiously to re-establish communication. But a sighting of space debris, and an amateur astronomer's video suggesting it was tumbling in orbit, left many worrying that Hitomi was a goner.

There's new hope it could be recovered. In an update posted March 29, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said it's gotten two bursts of communication from the satellite. The first one was received at a ground station in Japan on March 28 at 10 PM local time. The second one came in about 12:30 AM the next day, through a station in Chile.

"JAXA has not been able to figure out the state of its health," an agency release reads, "as the time frames for receiving the signals were very short."

The US Joint Space Operations Center, which spotted the debris, estimates that five pieces broke loose on March 26, according to JAXA, which is using radar to figure out what happened.

That doesn't sound good. But the fact that the satellite can communicate at all has left some space-watchers hopeful it can be saved.

Canada, US, and European institutions are all contributing to the Hitomi mission, which cost a reported $270 million. The telescope was designed to probe supermassive black holes and other cosmic sources of X-rays, giving us a window into how galaxies like our own Milky Way are formed, and how physics works in the most extreme of environments: around a black hole.

Whether Hitomi's dead or alive, only time will tell. But for every Kepler, the planet-hunting space telescope that was brought back to life, there's a Philae, the historic comet lander that lost communication with Earth—and was not heard from again.