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Science

Japan abandons hope of recovering X-ray satellite

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency officials explain the loss of the Hitomi X-ray satellite.

TOKYO -- Japan's space agency will cease efforts to recover the Astro-H astronomical satellite, which became inoperative shortly after its mid-February launch.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, said Thursday the decision was made after determining that all solar panels had separated from the X-ray satellite.

"We will discontinue efforts toward recovering the satellite," JAXA's Saku Tsuneta said. "We wish to concentrate on investigating the causes behind the anomalies."

Japan spent 31 billion yen ($286 million) to launch the satellite, also known as Hitomi, which was developed by an international consortium centered around JAXA and NASA. Loaded with six X-ray telescopes and detectors from Japan and overseas, Hitomi was supposed to measure X-rays emitted by black holes and supernovas, for example. Scientists had hoped that it would help solve mysteries of space. Hitomi was designed as the successor to two existing X-ray satellites that have run past their scheduled operational lives.

Ground control engineers lost contact with the satellite March 26. JAXA said a glitch caused internal system controls to think the satellite was moving when it was motionless. The satellite mistakenly tried to adjust itself, causing it to rotate. Hitomi was equipped with thrusters that straighten out the craft during emergencies, but a wrong command entered beforehand made the situation worse.

With the satellite spinning like a top, all six solar panels and some observation equipment likely were shaken loose from the main unit. The solar cells were an indispensable power source. Hitomi eventually will re-enter the atmosphere and burn up.

The problem might not be limited to Hitomi, since the same control system may be shared across other spacecraft.

"We must check whether other satellites either in operation or under development have adopted the same system," Tsuneta said.

The recovery efforts in the past month since the anomalies were discovered appear to have issues as well. JAXA had claimed in news conferences that it had received signals from the satellite, only for further analyses to reveal that the signals came from elsewhere.

The satellite's failure threatens not only to put a blot on Japan's space industry, but also create a severe gap in research. The next X-ray satellite is due to be launched from Europe in 2028.  

(Nikkei)

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