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Japan's lost satellite is tumbling through space, but still checking in

Japan’s space agency says it has received a few bursts of communication with the innovative satellite Hitomi. JAXA is holding out hope for its X-ray satellite.

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An H-2A rocket carrying an X-ray satellite called "Hitomi", is launched from the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture, southern Japan, On Feb. 17. Japan’s space agency says communication has failed with the innovative satellite on Saturday, but a new video suggests it is tumbling through space.

Kyodo News/AP/File

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Japan's lost space equipment – the X-ray satellite Hitomi – may have tried to phone home, suggesting that the $265-million piece of space equipment might still have a chance to complete its mission. 

Losing Hitomi would be a devastating blow for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), as the agency has already lost two other satellites, which broke before completing their missions. Fortunately for JAXA, promising video footage taken from Earth and sporadic bursts of static suggest that the satellite may still be functional, though perhaps tumbling through space.

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"If the satellite were not tumbling, it would appear to be the same brightness," Paul Maley, a former NASA flight controller and amateur astronomer who has observed Hitomi, told National Geographic. "The fact that it is rotating with extreme variations in brightness indicates that it is not controlled and that some event caused it to begin its rotation."

JAXA received a burst of communication earlier this week, suggesting the satellite is damaged but not destroyed completely, Jeff Faust reported for SpaceNews. JAXA remains optimistic, and the president has set up a headquarters to investigate and recover Hitomi. 

"There’s hope for recovery unless the spacecraft is severely damaged," he said. "We haven’t given up recovery of the spacecraft."

Hitomi lost contact with Earth on Saturday, March 26, but JAXA had no clues as to what happened or why communication failed, according to a news release. The president set up emergency headquarters for JAXA to investigate and recover the lost satellite. 

The US Space Command’s Joint Space Operations Center found evidence that Hitomi has broken into at least five pieces, but the satellite's owners hope that means the outer casing has broken off without damaging its frame or essential functions. Their case is bolstered by continuing communication.

Hitomi's mission is to study the universe's most high-energy objects, including black holes, galaxy clusters, and exploding stars, a mission JAXA still hopes it can complete. 

"The recovery will require months, not days," Masaki Fujimoto, a director of international strategy and coordination at JAXA told Space News. "That’s the kind of timescale we have in mind."