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Japan Has Lost Contact With a New Satellite and Isn’t Sure Why

The spacecraft launched in February.

(Photo: JAXA)

A space telescope launched last month has stopped responding to its masters on Earth, and officials are baffled at the moment as to why. 

Was the satellite destroyed by an asteroid? Did it somehow veer far off its orbit? Was there a mechanical malfunction? Was there a debilitating and mysterious “energetic event”?

No one seems to know for sure, and JAXA, the Japanese space agency, says it is investigating. One report said that the telescope, named Hitomi, had broken up into pieces, though Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at Harvard University, said that might not be as bad as it sounds. 

Debris in this case could just mean small particles. 

“Satellite might be basically intact,” McDowell wrote. “We don’t know.”

The astronomer also offered an early theory as to what happened. 

The telescope was equipped with a so-called “X-ray micro-calorimeter,” an instrument for detecting X-rays and gamma rays deep into the universe. It was launched in mid-February from a base in Japan and was to begin observations over the summer.

If JAXA is able to reconnect with Hitomi, it wouldn’t be the first time a space agency has lost contact with a spacecraft only to recover it later. For months in 1998 neither NASA nor European Space Agency officials could reach the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), only to eventually reconnect with it. Nearly 20 years later, SOHO remains functioning.

“I truly have not given up hope,” McDowell tells National Geographic.