May 06, 2016

    Japan can't save satellite despite a month of efforts


    JAPAN is abandoning a quarter-of-a-billion-dollar satellite it sent to study black holes, disappointed space scientists said last week, after spending a month trying to save it.

    The ultra-high-tech Hitomi - or eye - was launched in February to find X-rays emanating from black holes and galaxy clusters.

    But shortly after the expensive kit reached orbit, researchers admitted they had lost control of it and said it was no longer communicating, with agency scientists saying it could have disintegrated.

    Bosses at Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) set dozens of its brightest minds on the task of salvaging the satellite.

    But they acknowledged defeat last Thursday and said they were going to have to abandon it.

    "We concluded that the satellite is in a state in which its functions are not expected to recover," said Saku Tsuneta, director general of Jaxa's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science. He added that he "deeply apologises for abandoning operation".

    Jaxa officials think the solar panels that provide power for the precision instruments might have come adrift, leaving millions of dollars worth of technology drifting uselessly in space.

    The satellite, developed in collaboration with Nasa and other groups, was intended to help unlock the mystery of black holes.

    Scientists believe they are huge collapsed stars whose enormous gravitational pull is so strong that nothing can escape them.

    In February, it was announced that gravitational waves had been detected for the first time, adding to evidence of their existence.

    The next launch of a similar satellite is scheduled in 2028 by the European Space Agency.

    Mr Tsuneta said the loss of the device, which cost 31 billion yen (S$391 million), including the cost of launching it, was not only a disappointment for Japan but also for overseas astronomers who held out high hopes for its success.