The U.S. Air Force recently announced that Japan’s lost astronomy satellite Hitomi was not taken offline by space debris. Instead, the U.S. agency suspects that an internal technical malfunction may have caused the shutdown.
“We have seen nothing that says it was struck by debris,”
Cpt. Nicholas Mercurio, a spokesperson for the U.S. Air Force, recently told reporters.
On Mar. 27, Japan said that it had lost communications with the satellite the day before at around 3.40 Eastern. Half an hour later, investigators at the U.S. Air Force’s Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) reported five bits of space debris floating dangerously close to the space observatory.
Further analysis showed that the event must have happened six hours before the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) lost contact with Hitomi. JAXA recently announced that it planned to recover the research probe by using the ‘very short’ signals coming from the space telescope.
JAXA said that the Japan-based Uchinoura Ground Station and Chile-based Santiago Tracking Station detected the faint signals on Mar. 28.
As of Tuesday the status of the satellite remained unclear. The Japanese said that they were analyzing the space debris around Hitomi with powerful radars located at the Kamisaibara Space Guard Center and ground telescopes at the Bisei Space Guard Center.
Japan declined to comment on the possible cause that caused the breakup. It said that its space agency was investigating the issue. But Air Force clearly stated that there was no evidence of an orbital debris collision.
In the case of a possible debris strike, JSpOC experts try to figure out what happened by ‘rewinding the tape.’ For this purpose, they request additional data that may hold clues to the cause of the malfunction from other space agencies and international partners.
Tuesday morning, Air Force investigators analyzed the existing radar and sensor data and found no proof that Hitomi was hit by space debris as they had initially suspected. Mercurio noted that the agency found ‘nothing’ that may point in that direction.
Hitomi, also known as Astro-H, was launched on Feb 17, 2016. It reached orbit with help from an H-2A rocket on the same day. The 6,000-pound research satellite is equipped with state-of-the-art tools designed to study black holes and other extremely energetic space objects. Some of the instruments were offered by the ESA, NASA, and Canadian Space Agency.
Image Source: Shuttershock