Canada partners on Japanese X-ray space observatory
Launch: February 17, 2016
ASTRO-H: Japan's X-ray eyes
Imagine being able to observe monster-sized black holes and the remains of titanic explosions of stars. That is exactly the mission that ASTRO-H was designed to do. Nicknamed "Hitomi" after launch, ASTRO-H was an ambitious next-generation X-ray space telescope from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) with contributions from the United States, Europe and Canada, through the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The space observatory carried four specialized X-ray telescopes and detectors. Together, those instruments were designed to look at cosmic sources of X-rays at unprecedented resolution.
Shortly after its successful launch on February 17, 2016, ASTRO-H experienced an anomaly that sent the satellite spinning in space, causing it to lose communications with ground control in Japan. On April 28, 2016, JAXA announced that it was ending its efforts to regain control of the satellite to focus on investigating the cause of the incident, which is still not well understood.
The story behind "Hitomi"
ASTRO-H was named "Hitomi," which generally means "eye," specifically the pupil-a fitting allusion to the aperture designed to act as our eye on the universe!
Hitomi refers to the aperture of the eye (the pupil), where incoming light is absorbed. The name Hitomi was also inspired by an ancient legend. One day, a man was drawing four dragons. He drew every part of the dragons except "Hitomi" (their eyes). When others saw his work, they said, "You must include Hitomi! The dragons will not be complete without it." After some hesitation, he gave in, adding Hitomi to two of the four dragons. They immediately came to life, leapt off the page and flew into the sky. The other two dragons remained on the page.
Canadian precision technology on board
Canada built technology to assist one of ASTRO-H's key instruments, the Hard X-ray Telescope. The Hard X-ray telescope was located at the end of a six-metre mast, which was expected to twist and bend due to on-orbit vibrations and the extreme day-night transitions (the spacecraft orbited Earth at 550 km, where temperatures swing from -30 °C to +40 °C).
Recognizing Canadian expertise in space optical and vision systems, in 2009, JAXA approached the CSA to explore the possibility of Canada providing a measurement system for the mission's Hard X-ray Telescope. The Neptec Design Group of Ottawa, Ontario, designed and built the Canadian ASTRO-H Metrology System, or CAMS, as a solution to the Hard X-ray telescope's problem. CAMS was designed to precisely measure the mast's distortions to a level of accuracy equivalent to the width of two human hairs, allowing mission operators to calibrate the data of the Hard X-ray Telescope and significantly enhance the telescope's performance.
In return for this critical piece of hardware, Canada secured positions from Canadian institutions on the mission's Science Working Group, involving top scientists from around the world, notably from Japan, the US and Europe. Had the mission been successful, members of the group would have been offered prime observing time on the space observatory. Data would have been made available to all scientists afterwards, including Canadian astronomers.
The CSA selected three astronomers to represent Canada on the Science Working Group and support Canada's CAMS project:
- Dr. Luigi Gallo, Principal Investigator for CAMS, of Saint Mary's University;
- Dr. Brian McNamara of the University of Waterloo; and
- Dr. Samar Safi-Harb of the University of Manitoba.
The funding support provided by the CSA allowed these scientists to pursue advanced astronomical research with the ASTRO-H mission as well as participate in the International ASTRO-H Science Working Group meetings.
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