Japan's Hitomi space 'scope bricked, declared lost after software bug

Untested commands bork $286m instrument


The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has declared the ASTRO-H space telescope, renamed Hitomi after its launch, has been lost in space after a series of errors.

JAXA lost contact with the $286m x-ray 'scope last month. On Thursday the agency admitted the instrument is dead, saying that it appears the solar panels had snapped off the instrument. It is now drifting without power and will most likely burn up in Earth's atmosphere.

"JAXA expresses the deepest regret for the fact that we had to discontinue the operations of ASTRO-H and extends our most sincere apologies to everyone who has supported ASTRO-H believing in the excellent results ASTRO-H would bring, to all overseas and domestic partners including NASA, and to all foreign and Japanese astrophysicists who were planning to use the observational results from ASTRO-H for their studies," said the Japanese boffins.

The agency said it had hoped to reestablish contact with the telescope after receiving what it thought were radio messages from the probe. However, closer analysis showed that differences in the frequencies of the messages meant they could not have come from Hitomi and were likely to be interference from ground-based radio stations.

It appears that the telescope was lost after a series of hardware and software errors. Nature reports that JAXA was being shifted to look at a new part of the sky when its reaction wheels started spinning out of control.

The out-of-control wheels caused the telescope to tumble, so rocket thrusters were brought online to stabilize the telescope. Unfortunately, someone at ground control had programmed the probe with the wrong commands, which hadn't been tested, and instead of stabilizing the telescope, the rockets actually spun it faster and faster.

The rotation was too much of the instrument's solar panels to handle and JAXA said they appear to have broken off at the roots where they were fixed to the telescope. Without solar power the telescope's internal batteries quickly drained and the instrument is now DOA. ®

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