Space Detectives Are Figuring Out What Borked Japan’s Hitomi Satellite
Think back to your worst first day of work ever. Maybe you stepped in dog doo right before you got to the office. Or the fates aligned such that you shared a cubicle with last week’s failed Tinder match. Or maybe you just randomly exploded. Even if that last one doesn’t match a personal experience, you can at least empathize with Hitomi, the Japanese satellite that got buck fiftied by an asteroid—or something—while warming up for its first day of work.
The satellite, launched February 17 to collect X-rays from black holes and other cosmic bodies, was supposed to come online at 3:40am ET on March 26. But when the appointed time arrived, Hitomi didn’t clock in for work.
About forty minutes later, the debris-tracking US Joint Space Operations Center picked up signals for five objects orbiting near the satellite. Smaller bits of satellite? Asteroid pebbles? Possibly just insulation or some other non-critical components, because early this morning the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) reported it had caught fleeting transmissions from the probe.
And tracking data for the satellite itself revealed an abrupt course change.
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) March 27, 2016
So, something definitely happened to Hitomi. Getting an empirical answer for exactly what that was will be tricky. “We don’t have enough in the way of data collection or data sharing to quickly assess and analyze what causes these things,” says Moriba Jah, director of Space Object Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona, Tucson.
Whatever the cause of the problem, don’t count Hitomi out yet. “The interesting thing about the Japanese is they tend to be very good at resurrecting things that would otherwise be dead,” says Jah. For instance, JAXA recently maneuvered the Akatsuki satellite into orbit around Venus, after the probe had been adrift in space for five years.
Even if no telescopes witnessed whatever knocked Hitomi off kilter, scientists could sleuth their way to an explanation by looking at tracking data for those five pieces of debris, and tracing their trajectories back to when they were at a minimum distance to one another. “That’s probably the point at which their trajectories become one again,” says Jah, “and that could give an idea of when the collision actually occurred.”
The separate velocities of those pieces could give a clue whether they came from an outside impact—say, an asteroid—or from an explosion within the probe. The latter might make sense of the crazy coincidence of Hitomi getting smacked with an asteroid on its first day of work. Maybe the booting up process stressed out the satellite’s circuits. We’ve all had mornings like that, right?
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