New observations suggest that Hitomi, Japan’s flagship X-ray telescope, is tumbling through space in ten or more pieces—and is likely unrecoverable.
“The available data now seem to indicate a real break-up rather than just “some” debris shedding,” writes satellite tracker Marco Langbroek. “If true, then Hitomi is beyond saving.”
The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) lost consistent contact with Hitomi (also known as ASTRO-H) on March 26. Early reports showed the spacecraft’s orbit had rapidly changed—and that it had then shed at least five pieces of debris, size unknown. Video footage captured from the ground revealed an object tumbling through space, an ominous observation consistent with the intermittent radio signals JAXA was still receiving from the spacecraft. Altogether, the evidence suggested that some sudden event had disabled Hitomi, which would have peered into the hearts of galaxies and studied the maelstrom of matter swirling around black holes.
Whether that event was some kind of onboard explosion (more probable), or a collision with space debris (less probable) is still unclear.
Now, new radar observations from the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center indicate that Hitomi has broken up into at least ten pieces, and that two of these pieces are very large ...