Dozens of space scientists are desperately scouring the skies after losing track of a quarter of a billion dollar Japanese satellite that was sent to study black holes. The ultra-high-tech “hitomi” – or eye – satellite was supposed to be busy communicating from orbit by now, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said, but no one can say exactly where it is.
The device briefly made contact with ground crews but has since disappeared, with American researchers reporting that it could have broken into several pieces. “We’re taking the situation seriously,” Saku Tsuneta, director of the agency’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, told a news conference Sunday.
JAXA has around 40 technicians on the case, trying to locate the spacecraft and establish some kind of communication with it, an agency spokesman said Monday.
“We know approximately where it is,” the spokesman added, but scientists were still trying to work out its precise location.
The satellite, developed in collaboration with NASA and various other groups, was launched on Feb. 17 and was designed to observe X-rays emanating from black holes and galaxy clusters.
Black holes have never been directly observed, but scientists believe they are huge collapsed stars whose enormous gravitational pull is so strong that nothing can escape.
The announcement last month that gravitational waves had been detected for the first time added to evidence of their existence after scientists found the waves had been caused by two enormous black holes colliding.