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Students Observe Damaged Hitomi X-ray Satellite and Debris

Press Release From: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
Posted: Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Hitomi, also known as ASTRO-H, was a Japanese X-ray astronomy satellite that was launched in February. The $275 million spacecraft was 46 feet long when deployed and weighed 6,000 lbs. It carried a number of scientific instruments, including a unique device called an X-ray microcalorimeter that was intended to investigate the evolution and large-scale structure of the universe, dark matter distribution, how matter behaves in high-gravity areas like black holes, and other high-energy phenomena.

It experienced a catastrophic event on March 26 during its first test observations 360 miles above the Earth. The U.S. Joint Space Operations Center detected several fragments of debris in the area and Hitomi’s orbit suddenly changed.

“As soon as we got news of the suspected breakup, we wanted to observe the fragments with OSCOM, an optical tracking and spectral characterization system capable of observing large and small space objects, to see for ourselves how chaotically they were tumbling,” said Forrest Gasdia, an Embry-Riddle graduate student in Engineering Physics. “As soon as the skies were clear, Sergei Bilardi [Engineering Physics undergraduate] and I deployed a telescope for the observations.”

“The Physical Sciences Department has an impressive array of telescope assets, including a 1-meter (40-inch) Ritchey-Chrétien reflecting telescope, and OSCOM, which was seed funded by a National Science Foundation grant,” said Dr. Aroh Barjatya, associate professor and program coordinator of the Engineering Physics program at the Daytona Beach Campus. “All of these assets are readily available for our students majoring in Engineering Physics, which has a strong emphasis on space systems engineering, as well as a new Astronomy and Astrophysics program.”

Using OSCOM, the Engineering Physics students have obtained rapid brightness measurements of the satellite and debris fragments tumbling through space. These high-speed measurements -- up to 100 samples per second for the main fragment -- reveal bright reflections of solar light caused by different parts of Hitomi. The data show a strong and consistent flash pattern with a period of 2.6 seconds. Further details about the OSCOM system, more photometry results, and observation videos can be found on the Space and Atmospheric Instrumentation Lab (SAIL) website [http://sail.erau.edu/index.html]. For more OSCOM videos, browse the SAIL@ERAU YouTube channel [https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCJPkcVSUjL-0NzeibyLy0rg].

Although OSCOM specializes in observing small satellites and CubeSats in low-Earth orbit (LEO), the project team has also developed optical observation and analysis techniques for solving space situational awareness problems with spatially resolved satellites in LEO, satellites in geostationary orbit, and debris and near-Earth asteroids.

Media Contact:
James Roddey
Director of Communications, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
+1 (386) 226-6198
james.roddey@erau.edu

Science Contact:
Dr. Aroh Barjatya
Associate Professor of Engineering Physics and SAIL Director
+1 (386) 226-6675
aroh.barjatya@erau.edu

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, celebrating 90 years (http://www.erau.edu/90) as the world’s largest, fully accredited university specializing in aviation and aerospace, is a nonprofit, independent institution offering more than 80 baccalaureate, master’s and Ph.D. degree programs in its colleges of Arts & Sciences, Aviation, Business, Engineering and Security & Intelligence. Embry-Riddle educates students at residential campuses in Daytona Beach, Fla., and Prescott, Ariz., through the Worldwide Campus with more than 130 locations in the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and through online programs. The university is a major research center, seeking solutions to real-world problems in partnership with the aerospace industry, other universities and government agencies.

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