Debris spotted near Hitomi

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U.S. military observations have detected debris near the Japanese X-ray telescope Hitomi that has failed to respond to communication signals.

The U.S. Joint Space Operations Center on Sunday said it has spotted five objects floating near Japan’s brand new Hitomi X-ray astronomy satellite that lost communication with Earth the previous day. In a Twitter post, the center, which tracks objects in orbit, said it identified five pieces of “break up” debris in the vicinity of the satellite.

None of this sounds encouraging.


  • Cotour

    Are you implying that some extra kind of energy was directed at this piece of equipment? Say from a very large neighbor who may have wanted to exhibit some new capabilities? Or might it have just broken up as a function of the stresses of putting it in orbit?

  • Joe

    Cotour, are you implying that a rogue nation might have attacked the Japanese satellite with a laser or something, dumb question, quite possible…

  • Dick Eagleson

    The innocent possibilities seem to be two:

    1) Some defect of design and/or manufacture that resulted in a modest explosion on-board. If Hitomi has hypergolic thrusters, I’d have to rate them the prime suspects in such a scenario, but batteries are also known explosion sources too.

    2) Collision with some piece of random space junk with a mass sufficient to do significant damage short of complete obliteration, but with insufficient mass/radar cross-section to be trackable by JSPOC. A bolt out of the black, so to speak. Given the modest reported extent of the debris field, I’d have to rate this scenario as the likeliest to be true.

    The not-so-innocent possibilities also seem to number two:

    1) Covert attack by some form of ground- or space-based directed energy weapon. Ground-based would be most likely. Siting of said weapon would be Russia, China, Iran or North Korea in descending order of likelihood.

    It would be possible to put a high-power laser in orbit, but nearly impossible to hide it and fairly difficult even to obscure it. The DoD reportedly has the ability to image spacecraft out to GEO altitude or beyond at resolutions sufficient to “count the rivets” as the saying goes. Big space lasers need big tanks of chemical reactants or a significant nuclear power reactor or a lot of solar array surface to power the thing. They also need big optics to form the beam. Hard to hide such things in hard vacuum.

    2) A covert attack by some type of lurking space-based kinetic weapon. A direct-ascent kinetic ASAT would be seen by JSPOC. Something like a small coil gun launched long ago into a similarly inclined, but higher, orbit could shoot “dumb” ammunition, like small ball bearings at targets of opportunity in lower orbits by propelling them at moderate initial velocity in a direction opposite the “snipersat’s” orbital direction. The bearings would be too small for JSPOC to track and, if none struck home, would quickly incinerate in the atmosphere, leaving no one the wiser that a test had been unsuccessfully run. Falling from a higher orbit, a small ball bearing would, if it struck home, carry enough kinetic energy to severely ding almost any kind of spacecraft even if it would fall far short of blowing it to smithereens. This is the sort of thing Russia, China and, soon, even Iran and North Korea are completely capable of designing and building. Could be one or more of them has already done so.

  • Local Fluff

    JAXA has lost a fair share of its missions. Both Mars and Venus orbital insertions, and failed LEO launches, and the near failure of the Hayabusa asteroid sample return. Maybe they have too big ambitions for their 11% of NASA’s budget? Maybe their very expensive launcher eats most of the money of those missions (SLS scare anyone?)? I suspect that something seems to be long-term systematically wrong with JAXA’s priorities given their budget and failure-ratio.

  • NickP


    “The DoD reportedly has the ability to image spacecraft out to GEO altitude or beyond at resolutions sufficient to “count the rivets” as the saying goes”

    I’ve often heard this claim myself and I’ve wondered what size mirror/lens would be needed to get that kind of resolution. It should be an easy calculation but the equation escapes me.

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