Hitomi – the 273 Million Dollar Satellite Destroyed in Space

by Sankalan Baidya

Hitomi satellite launched by JAXA or Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency was destroyed in space. JAXA launched it with an ambition of exploring and unlocking the mysteries of universe. Unfortunately, after embarking on this ambitious mission, the satellite which cost USD 273 million, met its untimely demise.

The purpose of Hitomi was gathering data on X-Rays that are emitted by black holes. It was one of the most important programs of 2016. But, back in March something happened after Hitomi reached space. There was an unusual problem but at that time, the problem remained unidentified. Whatever problem it was and whatever caused the problem, eventually sent the costly satellite hurtling into deep space.

The cause for destruction of Hitomi

When the accident happened, no one knew what really caused it. There were only speculations. Some suggested that space junk collided with the satellite and sent it hurtling in space. Some technicians speculated that may be one of the onboard thrusters simply malfunctioned. It was all hoped that the problem was external and not internal.

JAXA however released new data about the unfortunate event. It turned out that it was not space debris and neither onboard thrusters that were responsible. It was human error that happened down on earth. The problem was in software programming designed for controlling the satellite. A fault in the programming caused it all. It was definitely a costly mistake. The programming fault destroyed the solar panels that were attached on either side of Hitomi. With the destruction of the solar panels, the primary power source for the satellite was destroyed. As a result, the satellite as a whole became useless.

JAXA operators actually noticed small amounts of debris floating around the expensive toy. That is what led to the speculation that the satellite collided with some space debris. However, later the operators concluded that the debris was actually composed of pieces of solar panels that got detached.

Because the primary power source went off, Hitomi went in for an uncontrollable spin. While the debris wasn’t really looked upon as a major problem, the uncontrollable spin told JAXA operators that something was seriously wrong.

Could Hitomi do nothing out there?

Before being blasted off into the unknown depths of the unforgiving universe, Hitomi did managed to collect some data. So, USD 273 million was not a complete waste.

On July 6, 2016, a paper was published in the journal Nature. Some of the discoveries made by the satellite were mentioned in that paper. One of the discoveries was the role plasma bubbles play in the distant galaxies. These bubbles lead to motion formation thereby preventing runaway radiative cooling. In the paper, this process was described as ‘Active Galactic Nucleus Feedback’.

There’s more that has been delivered by Hitomi before its demise. According to Gizmodo, one of the final images captured by Hitomi was that of the Perseus Cluster. A galaxy it the cluster, which is slightly less than 273 million miles away from us, has a supermassive black hole at its center.


According to the report, the researchers found that the galactic center was unusually quiet. From this, scientist have learned how black holes are capable of affecting the size of galaxies that sit nearby. University of Waterloo’s Brian McNamara, co-author of the published paper stated that the black holes are directly related to the growth rate of the galaxies.

View about the death of Hitomi

Not literally death. Hitomi is somewhere out there in the oblivion, hopelessly hurtling away and away from us. But some people think that the circumstances that eventually led to Hitomi’s death are a bit weird. The question is, ‘how can people make such programming mistakes in a project of that nature?’ It is really weird. Another question is, what can be done to prevent such errors in near future? Nonetheless, before meeting its doom, the satellite did manage to send over some valuable data. After all, USD 273 million was wasted completely.

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