A new video shows Japan’s troubled Hitomi spacecraft tumbling in orbit. As the satellite crosses the screen (from right to left), it varies wildly in brightness — which means it is shooting unstably through space.
“If the satellite were not tumbling it would appear to be the same brightness,” says Paul Maley, an amateur astronomy and former NASA flight controller, who observed Hitomi from the ground in Arizona. “The fact that it is rotating with extreme variations in brightness indicates that it is not controlled and that some event caused it to begin its rotation.”
It’s not yet clear what that event is, but the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency is investigating the problem and attempting to regain control of Hitomi.
JAXA lost consistent contact with the X-ray astronomy satellite on March 26, but it has heard an intermittent signal from the craft that is consistent with it tumbling through space. Troublingly, radar observations from the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center suggest Hitomi (or ASTRO-H) is in at least five pieces, and that it experienced a rapid change in orbit on the same day it went mostly quiet.
It’s unknown how big those pieces are (they could be small bits of ...