News Article | February 12, 2016
Space enthusiasts can watch in real-time as Japan gears up to launch its sixth satellite into space this month. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will be blasting its Astro-H spacecraft from the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima to study the history of galaxy clusters and the presence of black holes. The spacecraft was originally set to launch atop an H-IIA rocket at 3:45 a.m. EST (0845 GMT) on Friday, but the launch has been postponed due to weather issues. According to JAXA, a freezing layer of clouds, which exceed restrictions for suitable weather forecast, is expected to appear during the scheduled launch time. Strong winds were also expected to hinder preparations. Japan is partnering up with NASA for the ASTRO-H mission. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center provided two telescope mirrors and one scientific instrument for the spacecraft. Astro-H is an X-ray observatory dedicated to examining energetic events across the universe, such as the evolution of galaxy clusters and powerful supernova explosions. The Astro-H observatory will be 10 times more sensitive to X-ray light than the Suzaku spacecraft, its predecessor which had operated for a decade. Astro-H will examine high-energy light through four advanced instruments and four co-aligned focusing telescopes. Robert Petre, NASA's Astro-H project scientist, said they see X-rays from sources throughout the universe where particles reach significantly high energies. "These energies arise in a variety of settings," said Petre. This includes extreme magnetic fields, stellar explosions, or regions with strong gravity. "X-rays let us probe aspects of these phenomena that are inaccessible by instruments observing at other wavelengths," added Petre. Astro-H has two identical soft X-ray telescopes with mirror assemblies provided by Goddard. As X-rays can penetrate matter, the mirrors will be doing a very special function which astrophysicists call "grazing incidence optics." Like skipping a stone on water, X-ray light skimming through the surface of curved mirror segments is deflected toward the telescopes focal point. The first soft X-ray telescope given by the Goddard team can focus X-ray light to an advanced wide-field camera. The second soft X-ray telescope can send light into a soft X-ray spectometer (SXS). "The technology used in the SXS is leading the way to the next generation of imaging X-ray spectrometers," said Caroline Kilbourne of Goddard's SXS team. It will be able to identify tens of thousands of X-ray colors while simultaneously capturing sharp images. The Astro-H observatory is a collaborative project of JAXA, NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and Yale University experts. The date of the launch will be announced as soon as it is determined.
News Article | March 30, 2016
Somewhere in the vast outer space, a young X-ray astronomy satellite is floating ceaselessly — alone. Only a few weeks after its launch, Japan's ASTRO-H or Hitomi satellite went missing on March 26. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) confirmed on Saturday that it has indeed lost contact with the satellite. Hitomi was gone too soon. What could have happened? Could JAXA eventually regain contact with Hitomi? There are many possibilities: it could either still be whole or it could have already been broken into space debris. Hitomi was blasted into space on Feb. 17 to study gamma rays and X-rays, and observe galaxy clusters and black holes. It was supposed to go online on March 26 at 03:40 a.m. ET. When the appointed time passed, Hitomi did not clock in. It may or may not be a coincidence, but 40 minutes after the appointed time, the United States Joint Space Operations Center caught signals for five space objects orbiting near Hitomi. Are these smaller pieces of the satellite? Or are these merely asteroid pebbles? Astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said that, should the debris belong to Hitomi, they could be minor bits blowing off the satellite. It may not mean complete destruction. In a stunning turn of events, JAXA reported on Monday, March 28, that it had picked up fleeting transmissions from Hitomi. What's more, data for the satellite itself showed a sudden change of course. Getting an empirical answer will be the tricky part. Moriba Jah of University of Arizona, Tucson said there is not enough data collection or data sharing to immediately assess what caused Hitomi's lost transmission. But all hope is not yet lost. JAXA said it is working toward recovery of the space probe, and Jah said that the space agency is skilled at that. "The interesting thing about the Japanese is they tend to be very good at resurrecting things that would otherwise be dead," said Jah, who is director of Space Object Behavioral Science at the university. If there was indeed a collision, they could trace the trajectories back to when the objects were at a minimum distance from each other. "That's probably the point at which their trajectories become one again. That could give an idea of when the collision actually occurred," added Jah.
On 12 January 2016, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) presented their ASTRO-H satellite to the media at the Tanegashima Space Center, situated on a small island in the south of Japan. The satellite, developed with institutions in Japan, the US, Canada and Europe, is now ready to be mounted on an H-IIA rocket for launch on 12 February. ASTRO-H is a new-generation satellite, designed to study some of the most powerful phenomena in the Universe by probing the sky in the X-ray and gamma-ray portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Scientists will investigate extreme cosmic environments ranging from supernova explosions to supermassive black holes at the centres of distant galaxies, and the hot plasma permeating huge clusters of galaxies. ESA contributed to ASTRO-H by partly funding various elements of the four science instruments, by providing three European scientists to serve as science advisors and by contributing one scientist to the team in Japan. In return for ESA's contribution, European scientists will have access to the mission's data. Traditionally, Japan's astronomy satellites receive a provisional name consisting of the word 'ASTRO' followed by a letter of the latin alphabet – in this case H, because it is the eighth project in JAXA's astronomical series. JAXA will announce the new name after launch. ASTRO-H is a new-generation satellite for high-energy astrophysics, developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in collaboration with institutions in Japan, the US, Canada, and Europe. Its four instruments span the energy range 0.3-600 keV, including soft X-rays, hard X-rays and soft gamma rays. ESA's contribution consists in funding the procurement of a number of items on the various instruments, three European scientists who will serve as advisors to the mission's core science programme, and one full-time scientist based at the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), Japan, to support in-flight calibration, science software testing and data analysis. Support to European users will be provided by scientists at ESA's European Space Astronomy Centre in Madrid, Spain, and at the European Science Support Centre at the ISDC Data Centre for Astrophysics, University of Geneva, Switzerland. Explore further: Japan launches satellite for better GPS coverage (Update)
A new X-ray telescope run by the Japan Aerospace Agency has gone silent a little more than a month after its launch. JAXA reported online March 27 that the telescope, ASTRO-H (aka Hitomi), stopped communicating with Earth. U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center also reported seeing five pieces of debris alongside the satellite on March 26. Attempts to figure out what went wrong with the spacecraft, which launched February 17, have not been successful. Up until now though, ASTRO-H seemed to be functioning. In late February, mission operators successfully switched on the spacecraft’s cooling system and tested some of its instruments. ASTRO-H carries four instruments to study cosmic X-rays over an energy range from 0.3 to 600 kiloelectron volts. By studying X-rays, astronomers hope to learn more about some of the more feisty denizens of the universe such as exploding stars, gorging black holes, and dark matter swirling around within galaxy clusters. Earth’s atmosphere absorbs X-rays, so the only way to see them is to put a telescope in space.
The project, led by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), aims to collect a wealth of new data on everything from the formation of galaxy clusters to the warping of space and time around black holes. ASTRO-H will launch Feb. 12 from the Tanegashima Space Center, with participation from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and research institutions around the world. "This is the next, big X-ray observatory," said Andrew Szymkowiak, a Yale senior research scientist in astronomy and physics who is part of the ASTRO-H mission. "We're going to clean up on new information about galaxy clusters and supernova remnants." Many objects in deep space—including black holes, neutron stars, and galaxy clusters—emit X-rays as well as visible light; however, those X-rays have wavelengths that are 1,000 to 100,000 times shorter than visible light. The best way to study X-rays from deep space is to use an orbiting telescope, because Earth's atmosphere blocks X-rays from reaching land-based telescopes. ASTRO-H will maintain orbit near the equator and gather data for three years. It will be outfitted with an array of innovative technologies, including four telescopes, a soft X-ray spectrometer (SXS), a soft X-ray imaging system (SXI), a hard X-ray imaging system (HXI), and a soft gamma-ray detector (SGD). Meg Urry, Yale's Israel Munson Professor of Physics and Astronomy, and Paolo Coppi, professor of astronomy and physics, are members of the ASTRO-H scientific working group. They will be among the first scientists to get a look at the data collected by ASTRO-H. "This will be a powerful observatory," Urry said. "We're using novel technology to learn about objects that are very far away, in more detail than ever before." In particular, Urry noted, the gear aboard ASTRO-H boasts better energy resolution by a factor of 30 and a sensitivity level that is orders of magnitude better than previous technology. Data from ASTRO-H will aid Urry's ongoing research into the formation and evolution of black holes and their host galaxies, and Coppi's work exploring deep space objects that are surrounded by dense gasses. For Szymkowiak, the mission represents the culmination of a long-term personal commitment, as well. In 1983, while working for NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, he was part of a team that developed a new way to build an X-ray spectrometer with the potential to collect information on a wider expanse of diffuse objects in deep space. The idea was to test the instrument on a rocket being readied by the Japanese space program. But getting the experiment launched into orbit in working order proved challenging, with several failed attempts. There was one version of the experiment that was launched but didn't make it into orbit; another attempt achieved orbit but stopped working after 17 days. Szymkowiak's instrument, the SXS, now will be the central piece of technology aboard ASTRO-H. Here's how it works: refrigeration units will cool specialized detector elements to near absolute zero. When X-rays emitted by objects in deep space are absorbed by the detector elements, they will increase in temperature. Scientists will use that temperature rise to measure the energy of the X-ray. The SXS is expected to generate the most accurate X-ray measurements of any instrument to date. "Our team has been working on this experiment for 30 years," Szymkowiak said. "While we've really enjoyed working with our Japanese colleagues, during the many weeks of instrument integration, testing, and launch rehearsals, it is going to be so rewarding to finally get to reap the scientific rewards." The principal investigator for ASTRO-H is Tadayuki Takahashi of JAXA and the University of Tokyo. The lead investigators for the United States are at the Goddard Space Flight Center. The scheduled launch date for ASTRO-H is Feb. 12, with an extended launch window until Feb. 29. ASTRO-H is the eighth JAXA satellite dedicated to astronomy and astrophysics. As with other JAXA missions, it will be renamed after its launch.