Spaceflight Now: Breaking News

Astro-E believed lost following botched launch

Posted: Feb. 10, 2000 [Updated at 0830 GMT]

The M-5 rocket lifts off on the doomed mission. Photo: ISAS
A Japanese rocket failed to deliver a $105 million X-ray observatory into the correct orbit today, probably sending the international satellite careening back into Earth's atmosphere where it was destroyed.

The Astro-E spacecraft, built under a cooperative project between the Japanese and U.S. scientists, was designed to seek out X-ray sources in the universe. It would have joined two other sophisticated X-ray probes launched since July.

The Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) booster lifted off at 0130 GMT today (8:30 p.m. EST Wednesday) from the Kagoshima Space Center, located on the southern tip of the Japanese island of Kyushu. See a drawing of the rocket.

But launch officials say the $62 million M-5 rocket suffered a control system breakdown during the first stage of flight, possibly due to a damaged booster nozzle. The later two stages of the rocket tried to compensate for the problem but failed, leaving Astro-E in lower than intended orbit that likely proved fatal to the probe.

"The satellite was launched as scheduled but it took an orbit lower than it should have taken after the rocket lost position slightly," the AFP news agency quoted a space official as saying.

A Web site operated by U.S. researchers that built one of the craft's instruments read: "Astro-E has not been heard from since launch. It was placed into too low an orbit, and is believed to have reentered."

The M-5 rocket used to launch Astro-E is positioned for flight. Photo: ISAS

Astro-E should have been delivered into an egg-shaped orbit around Earth with a high point of 343 miles and low point of 125 miles.

However, officials said the botched launch left the craft in an orbit 250 miles high and 50 miles at the low side. That orbit would have put the satellite on a trajectory back into the atmosphere.

AFP reported controllers tried to communicate with an engine onboard Astro-E in an effort to boost the satellite higher. However, no response was heard.

The launch was delayed twice in the past two days. The first postponement was caused by high winds; the scrub yesterday occurred 40 seconds before liftoff because of a tracking station glitch.

Astro-E was poised to join the newly launched Chandra X-ray Observatory from NASA and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton satellite to study the universe.

Researchers had hoped to use Astro-E to understand how supermassive black holes, neutron stars and supernova remnants work with the probe's unrivaled spectral resolution.

As a spectroscopy mission, Astro-E would have studied the "colors" of X-ray light.

An artist's concept of the Astro-E observatory. Photo: NASA

Japanese scientists said in a statement about the launch failure: "After six years of hard work by a dedicated staff of scientists, engineers, and administrators, Astro-E was launched...although we are disappointed, we will continue to search for answers about the universe."

Astro-E carried the X-ray Spectrometer, developed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and Japan's (ISAS), four X-ray Imaging Spectrometer instruments Japanese universities and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Space Research, and the Hard X-ray Detector built by the University of Tokyo and ISAS.

The M-5 rocket was making its third launch. The previous two were successful, launching a radio telescope in 1997 and a Mars probe in 1998.

Today's failure comes on the heels of two consecutive mishaps of Japan's H-2 rocket fleet. Those launches were conducted by the National Space Development Agency, NASDA, the country's national space program. ISAS, which launches the M-5, is part of Japan's education ministry.

Flight data file
Vehicle: M-5
Payload: Astro-E
Launch date: Feb. 10, 2000
Launch time: 0130 GMT (8:30 p.m. EST on 9th)
Launch site: Kagoshima Space Center, Japan

Video vault
NASA animation of Astro-E shows the spacecraft orbiting the Earth to observe X-ray sources.
  PLAY (199k, 20sec QuickTime file)

Dr. Steven Holt talks about advances in X-ray astronomy with Chandra, the X-ray Multi-Mirror satellite and Astro-E.
  PLAY (219k, 24sec QuickTime file)

Explore the Net
ISAS - Mission Web site at Japan's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science.

Astro-E Learning Center - Background material on the observatory and its mission.

LHEA - NASA's Laboratory for High Energy Astrophysics where XRS instrument was built.

XIS - MIT home page for the X-ray Imaging Spectrometer instrument.

HXD - Tokyo University home page for the Hard X-ray Detector instrument.

Sign up for Astronomy Now's NewsAlert service and have the latest news in astronomy and space e-mailed directly to your desktop (free of charge).

Your e-mail address: