Scientists are getting an X-ray view into the cosmos with Hitomi, a new observatory that successfully launched from Japan's Tanegashima Space Centre on Wednesday.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) confirmed in a statement that the launch vehicle flew as planned and that the satellite carrying the X-ray telescope, formerly known as Astro-H, separated successfully from the rocket about 14 minutes and 15 seconds after the liftoff at 3:45 a.m. ET.
At more than 12 metres long when fully extended, Hitomi is longer than any telescope of its kind ever built, and scientists hope that it will provide unprecedented access to the secrets of black holes, supernovas and galaxy clusters as it measures high-energy X-rays in space.
Its success relies heavily on the precision of a Canadian-built laser measurement system that will help adjust for distortions in the telescope to within the width of two human hairs as it flexes and vibrates in orbit.
"It was much more emotional than I expected," said Luigi Gallo, a professor of astronomy at St. Mary's University in Halifax and the principal investigator of Canada's contribution to the observatory, who was present at the launch. "Everyone watched in complete silence and you could only hear the roar of the rocket."
Built by Neptec Design Group Ltd. in just four years, the Canadian Astro-H Measurement System (CAMS) accounts for the bulk of Canada's $10-million contribution to the mission. In return, three Canadian astronomers, including Dr. Gallo, will be part of the mission's science team, getting privileged access to data collected by the telescope.
Scientists will also investigate how galaxies such as the Milky Way were formed and how matter behaves under extreme conditions, a potential clue to how our universe was formed and continues to change.
Hitomi is the Japanese word for the aperture or pupil of the eye, where incoming light is absorbed. JAXA hopes that the telescope will play a similar role as the "one last, but most important part" in the human quest to solve the mysteries of the universe.
The wait is not over for Dr. Gallo and his associates, who will see CAMS come to life once the satellite is fully extended – within the next two months. "This day has been a long time coming, much longer for some teammates than for me, but it feels pretty perfect right now," he said. "I'll sleep well tonight, but still lots of work ahead."
The federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, Navdeep Bains, issued a statement on the launch, saying, "Like many Canadians, I look forward to the amazing discoveries from this space-based observatory, and am very much interested to see how Canadian scientists will help advance humankind's knowledge of the universe."