One of the stories I’ve been following a bit while taking a break from blogging has been that of the Japanese X-ray satellite Hitomi (formerly known as ASTRO-H), which was launched into a low-Earth orbit on February 17th 2016, experienced a “communication anomaly” on Saturday March 26th. It has now become clear that this was more than a simple communications glitch. Astronomer Jonathan McDowell posted this diagram on Twitter that showed a sudden decrease in the orbital period of the satellite:
Students of orbital dynamics will know that a decrease in orbital period corresponds to a decrease in the semi-major axis of the orbit, so Hitomi actually fell during this episode. It dropped only slightly – look at the % change on the graph – but by enough to be very worrying.
The plot thickened still further when radar detected five pieces of debris near the satellite and visual observations indicated the spacecraft to be tumbling rapidly. That suggested a very grim picture.
Putting the evidence together it seems that some kind of explosive event – possibly connected with out-gassing of cryogenic material from one of the on-board experiments – had damaged the satellite, changed its orbit and set it spinning uncontrollably.
Since then ground stations have picked up some signals from Hitomi, which is good news, but these broadcasts are just from the on-board beacon. It has not yet proved possible to communicate with the attitude control system which is the only way to get it back into a stable state.
Obviously it’s touch and go as to whether the Japanese Space Agency JAXA will be able to regain control of Hitomi, but at least there’s more hope than on Saturday when many of us thought the vehicle had fallen apart. In fact the pieces of debris reported may be rather small (ten cm or so is detectable) and the main body of the telescoper may be intact. Maybe.
Update: April 1st. Tracking facilities are now reporting 11 pieces of debris, and also suggesting the object whose period is plotted in the above graph may not be the main part of the spacecraft. This does not sound good.
Update: April 2nd. The debris from Hitomi has now spread out due to different orbital speeds. The two largest pieces are both spinning out of control. I would say at this point that hope of a recovery has now disappeared. It’s very sad.Follow @telescoper