Japan’s Black Hole Telescope Is In Trouble

An artist's drawing of Japan's Hitomi observatory. Image Credit: JAXA/Akihiro Ikeshita

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has lost contact with its X-ray Astronomy Satellite Hitomi (ASTRO-H.) Hitomi was launched on February 17th, for a 3-year mission to study black holes. But now that mission appears to be in jeopardy.

Hitomi is a collaboration between JAXA and NASA. Its mission was to investigate how galaxy clusters were formed and influenced by dark matter and dark energy, and to understand how super-massive black holes form and evolve at the center of galaxies. Hitomi was also to “unearth the physical laws governing extreme conditions in neutron stars and black holes,” according to JAXA.

Japan has managed two very short communications with Hitomi, but they were very brief, and JAXA has not been able to determine the nature of the problem. Now, JSpOC, the US Joint Space Operations Center, say they have detected debris in the vicinity of Hitomi, and in a press release this morning (March 29th), JAXA says “it is estimated that Hitomi separated to five pieces at about 10:42 a.m.”

Hitomi was going to be an important contribution to the fleet of space telescopes used by astrophysicists and cosmologists. It has a cutting edge instrument called the X-ray micro-calorimeter, which would have observed X-rays from space with the greatest sensitivity of any instrument so far. If all that is lost, it will be quite a blow.

There’s no definitive word yet on what exactly has happened to Hitomi. Japan is using ground stations in different parts of the world to try to communicate with their observatory. It’s important to note that there is no agreement that the craft has broken apart. The press releases are translations from Japanese to English, so the exact meaning of “separated to five pieces” is unclear.

It’s possible that there was a small explosion of some sort, and that some debris from that explosion is in the vicinity of Hitomi. It’s also possible that JAXA will re-establish communications with the craft as time goes on.

Other observatories have suffered serious problems, and have eventually been brought back under control and completed their missions. The ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) suffered serious problems at the beginning of its mission in 1995, entering emergency mode 3 times before all contact was lost. Eventually, SOHO was brought under control, and what was supposed to be a 2-year mission has lasted 20.

Universe Today will be following this story to see if Hitomi can be made operational. For readers wanting to know more about Hitomi’s mission, read JAXA’s excellent Hitomi press kit.

Japanese ‘Space Cannon’ On Track For Aiming At An Asteroid: Reports

Watch out, asteroid 1999 JU3: you’re being targeted. As several media reports reminded us, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)’s Hayabusa-2 asteroid exploration mission will carry a ‘space cannon’ on board — media-speak for the “collision device” that will create an artificial crater on the asteroid’s surface.

“An artificial crater that can be created by the device is expected to be a small one with a few meters in diameter, but still, by acquiring samples from the surface that is exposed by a collision, we can get fresh samples that are less weathered by the space environment or heat,” JAXA states on its website.

Reports indicate JAXA is on schedule to, er, shoot this thing into space for a 2018 rendezvous with an asteroid. The spacecraft will stick around the asteroid for about a year before heading back to Earth in 2020. The overall aim is to learn more about the origin of the solar system by looking at a C-type asteroid, considered to be a “primordial body” that gives us clues as to the early solar system’s makeup.

Check out more on Hayabusa-2 on JAXA’s website.

A Colorful Art Project You Can Only Do In Space

Wow! That was our reaction to seeing this picture (and others) of a light show aboard the International Space Station. After confirming with NASA that the images circulating lately on social media are real, we were directed to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), who co-ordinated this experiment.

The work is called “Auroral Oval Spiral Top” and was done in the Kibo module on May 12, 2011, JAXA said. This was the second version of the experiment, which initially ranĀ April 30, 2009 during Expedition 19.

Spiral Top performed in 2009. The art project was an earlier version of the Auroral Oval Spiral Top experiment that was done in May 2011. Credit: NASA/JAXA
Spiral Top performed in 2009. The art project was an earlier version of the Auroral Oval Spiral Top experiment that was done in May 2011. Credit: NASA/JAXA

“Auroral Oval Spiral Top uses a spinning top that has arms illuminating with LED linear light sources and point light sources. Various movements of the spinning top floating in microgravity show aurora-like light traces,” JAXA stated on a web page about the experiment.

The project, JAXA added, is “designed to produce aurora-like luminescence traces using a spinning top with both linear and point light sources. In microgravity, the center of gravity of the spinning top continuously and randomly moves while it is spinning. Using the characteristics of the top in microgravity, the project tries to produce various light arts using its unexpected movements/spins, by changing attaching locations of its arms and weights.”

Takuro Osaka, a professor at the University of Tsukuba, was the principal investigator of this art project. What are your favorite experiments performed by astronauts in space? Let us know in the comments.

Another view of the Auroral Oval Spiral Top experiment. Credit: NASA
Another view of the Auroral Oval Spiral Top experiment. Credit: NASA