WASHINGTON – Japan’s brand new Hitomi X-ray astronomy satellite has apparently lost control and is spinning wildly in orbit, according to a video taken by an amateur U.S. astronomer that was posted to the National Geographic website Monday.
The video shows an object that looks like Hitomi, which lost contact Saturday with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), shining and then turning extremely dark in short intervals.
The wild changes in brightness might mean its sunlight-reflecting side is moving turbulently.
“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,” Paul Maley, a former NASA flight controller who observed Hitomi from the ground in Arizona, was quoted as saying.
Maley, who worked for about 40 years at the Johnson Space Center, shot the footage shortly after 8 p.m. Sunday. The object was flying in the south-southeastern sky, the direction projected from Hitomi’s planned orbit.
Hitomi was designed to observe X-rays emanating from black holes and galaxy clusters. Black holes have never been directly observed, but they are believed to be collapsed stars whose enormous gravitational pull is so strong nothing can escape.
Hitomi, which JAXA jointly developed with NASA and other entities, was called Astro-H until it was put into orbit by an H-IIA rocket launched from the Tanegashima Space Center on Tanegashima Island off Kyushu on Feb. 17.
The announcement last month that gravitational waves had been detected for the first time added to evidence of their existence after scientists found the waves had been caused by two enormous black holes colliding.
Hitomi, which cost ¥31 billion ($273 million) including the cost of launching it, was supposed to orbit at an altitude of about 580 km above Earth. No other information was available as of Tuesday.
On Sunday, JAXA said that if it doesn’t re-establish communications with Hitomi, it may not be unable to start the astronomy research that was scheduled this summer. JAXA was calibrating the equipment on Hitomi when it ran into problems.
“We are taking this situation very seriously,” Saku Tsuneta, director of JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, said at a news conference.
Japan’s space program has achieved successes in both scientific and commercial satellite launches. It has sent astronauts on space shuttle and International Space Station missions.