Problems with attitude system doomed Hitomi

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A series of failures in the attitude system on Japan’s X-ray space telescope Hitomi led to its destruction.

The problem started when the satellite’s inertial reference unit detected Hitomi was rotating around its Z-axis at 21.7 degrees per hour. The spacecraft was actually stable at the time, mission managers from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said Friday. The satellite’s attitude control system commanded Hitomi’s reaction wheels, rapidly-spinning devices which control the pointing of the spacecraft with momentum, to counteract the spin. The action caused the satellite to rotate in the opposite direction as the faulty inertial reference unit indicated, officials said. Momentum accumulated inside the reaction wheel system, and magnetic torquers aboard the satellite were unable to unload the building momentum, which neared the reaction wheels’ design limit.

Hitomi’s computers recognized the dangerous situation and put the satellite into safe hold a few hours later. The satellite tried to stabilize using the craft’s hydrazine-fueled rocket thrusters to aim its solar panels toward the sun. But the trouble was not over, and the spacecraft’s solar sensor was unable to find the sun. Struggling to correct the growing spin rate, small rocket firings inadvertently caused Hitomi to rotate faster due to a bad setting in the thruster system, JAXA officials said.

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