WASHINGTON – The U.S. Joint Space Operations Center on Sunday said it has spotted five objects floating near Japan’s brand new Hitomi X-ray astronomy satellite that lost communication with Earth the previous day.
In a Twitter post, the center, which tracks objects in orbit, said it identified five pieces of “break up” debris in the vicinity of the satellite.
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said it is not known whether the Hitomi was struck by space debris and destroyed or whether minor pieces of it were knocked off.
The satellite is supposed to be orbiting about 580 km above Earth. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is trying to confirm its condition.
Hitomi, jointly developed with NASA and other concerns, has four X-ray telescopes and two gamma-ray detectors that are supposed to shed light on the mysteries of the universe, including black holes, which are difficult to observe directly because they emit no light.
Hitomi was called Astro-H until it was put into orbit by an H-IIA rocket launched from Kagoshima Prefecture on Feb. 17.
On Sunday, JAXA said that if it doesn’t re-establish communications with Hitomi, it may not be unable to start astronomy research as scheduled this summer. JAXA was calibrating the equipment on Hitomi when it ran into problems.
“We are taking this situation very seriously,” Saku Tsuneta, director of JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, said at a news conference.