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Video Shows Troubled Japanese Spacecraft Tumbling in Orbit

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’s shooting unstably through space. The space telescope lost consistent communication with Earth on Saturday.

“If the satellite were not tumbling, it would appear to be the same brightness,” says Paul Maley, an amateur astronomer 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, or JAXA, 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 insulation) or what exactly has happened to the spacecraft, with speculation ranging from an on-board error — such as a battery explosion or gas leak — to a collision with space debris or a micrometeorite. Regardless, the situation is clearly not good news for JAXA, which has already experienced two failures with X-ray observatories. In 2000, its ASTRO-E space telescope failed to reach orbit and likely crashed into the Pacific Ocean, and in 2005, a helium leak disabled the primary instrument on Suzaku, ASTRO-E’s successor. But late last year, JAXA did manage to place its Akatsuki spacecraft in orbit around Venus, five years after a valve malfunction caused the spacecraft to miss its first rendezvous with Earth’s shrouded sister world.

Hitomi, which launched into low-Earth orbit on February 17, was intended to study the highest energy universe and peer at galaxy clusters, supermassive black holes, and exploding stars. Some scientists still think it’s not entirely impossible for the space telescope (whose name means “eye” in Japanese) to recover from this series of still-mysterious unfortunate mishaps and stare at the cosmos.