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Japanese Space Agency Searches for Satellite Lost in Space

A month after launch, the Astro-H, renamed Hitomi (“pupil of the eye”) satellite disappeared in outer space. This is a major setback for the Japanese Space Agency, Jaxa since the satellite was to study supermassive black holes, neutron stars and galaxy clusters.

The Launch of the Astro-H, Hitomi Satellite

The Launch of the Astro-H, Hitomi Satellite

Dozens of scientists and engineers are hoping to save the satellite that represents a $273 million investment from the Japanese government and additional funds for instruments provided by NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency.

Recently, the US Joint Space Center (JSpOC), which tracks spaced debris, noticed several small objects around the satellite. Shortly thereafter, ground contact in Japan was lost and the satellite appeared to take a sudden change in course and appeared to flash, as if tumbling.

However, scientists are optimistic because the craft appeared to be mostly intact. Theories range from a possible battery explosion to a gas leak that may have caused a spinout.

Astro-H, Hitomi Satellite Under Construction

Astro-H, Hitomi Satellite Under Construction

Professor Goh Cher Hiang, program director of the satellite program at the National University of Singapore has said that thanks to monitoring and backup systems, battery explosions are very rare. A damaged fuel tank may also cause a tumble.

He says,

It could also be from a collision with something in space, either from outer space or a manmade object already in space.

Quick recovery is important. If the satellite continues to tumble in space, it would be unable to obtain the solar energy used to power itself. Goh adds that it comes down to three things,

One, communications; two, power; and three, the computer. First you have to talk to the satellite.

If these are impossible, the satellite may be lost. Though losing satellites is nothing new, experiencing a complete failure in which the entire mission is a loss is very rare, especially among space agencies like Jaxa.

Goh says,

In general, it is rare. But not impossible. It’s the main reason a lot of people buy satellite satellite insurance, just in case.”

Satellite insurance?