After losing communication with Hitomi, an X-ray observation satellite designed to study the origins of the universe, late in March, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced Thursday it was abandoning efforts to regain control of the satellite, officially known as ASTRO-H. Hitomi was launched on Feb. 17 to observe galaxy clusters, neutron stars and black holes using onboard equipment that included X-ray telescopes, imagers and gamma ray detectors.
The satellite reached orbit and was announced to be in a stable condition on Feb. 29. On the evening of March 26, little over a month after its launch, JAXA lost contact with Hitomi. Initially, the space agency thought the lack of communication with the satellite was an anomaly and said it received a short signal from it while working toward a recovery.
However, later investigation revealed that the satellite had broken up into several pieces while the main body remained spinning in orbit. Incorrect programming made the satellite spin and incorrect signals, which had been transmitted to it in advance, accelerated the spin, and the resulting increase in centrifugal force tore away the solar battery panels and an observation platform, Asahi Shimbun reported Thursday.
Saku Tsuneta, director of JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, told reporters during a press conference Thursday: “There were human errors. But a bigger problem lies with our entire system as we were not able to detect those errors.”
In a statement Thursday, JAXA also acknowledged that the signals it had thought to be originating from Hitomi after March 26 had a different frequency and were actually from another satellite. Citing its own analyses and “information from several overseas organizations,” the statement said “JAXA will cease the efforts to restore ASTRO-H and will focus on the investigation of anomaly causes.”
Japan spent close to $300 million on developing Hitomi, which means pupil of the eye, a reference to its planned activities on the cosmic scale.