A new video shows how the Japanese Hitomi spacecraft is tumbling in orbit as it lost consistent communication with Earth on Saturday. Astronomers know it is shooting unstably through space because it appears extremely varying in brightness as it crosses the screen from right to left.
Paul Maley, an astronomer and former NASA flight controller, clarified that the satellite would appear to be the same brightness if it were not tumbling, according to a report by National Geographic. He added that the significant variations in brightness are a clear signal that Hitomi is out of control and that an unknown event led it to begin its rotation.
Experts speculate that there may have been an onboard issue like a gas leak or a battery explosion. There is also the possibility that the spacecraft collided with a micrometeorite or space debris.
The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is investigating the problem and trying to have Hitomi under control. The agency has heard an intermittent signal from the spacecraft that also indicates it is tumbling in orbit.
But that is not the worst. The U.S. Joint Space Operations Center’s radar observations revealed that Hitomi, also known as ASTRO-H, is in five pieces and it remains unclear how big they are.
Hitomi was launched into low-Earth orbit over a month ago. It was designed to study the high-energy universe in X-rays and gamma rays, as well as to observe galaxy clusters, exploding stars and supermassive black holes.
Not the first JAXA’s failure with an X-ray observatory
JAXA has already experienced two failures with such observatories. The agency’s ASTRO-E space telescope failed to reach orbit in 2000 and probably crashed into the Pacific Ocean. And five years later, ASTRO-E’s successor named Suzaku was disabled by a helium leak.
But JAXA successfully placed last year its Akatsuki spacecraft in orbit around Venus. The Japanese agency achieved this five years after the spacecraft missed its first rendezvous with the planet due to a valve malfunction. Events like these make astronomers believe there is still hope for Hitomi, which means “eye” in Japanese.
Source: National Geographic