‘WTF’: UFO to crash in Indian Ocean on Friday, Nov 13

space-junk

Researchers call it sheer coincidence that a newly discovered piece of space junk is officially designated WT1190F. But the letters in the name, which form the acronym for an unprintable expression of bafflement, are an appropriate fit for an object that is as mysterious as it is unprecedented.

Scientists have worked out that WT1190F will plunge to Earth from above the Indian Ocean on 13 November, making it one of the very few space objects whose impact can be accurately predicted. More unusual still, WT1190F was a ‘lost’ piece of space debris orbiting far beyond the Moon, ignored and unidentified, before being glimpsed by a telescope in early October, according to European Space Agency (ESA).

Now the space debris, which is thought to measure between 1 and 2 metres long, is on a collision course with Earth, and presents a rare opportunity for scientists to watch the entire impact event from beginning to end.

Scientists have worked out that WT1190F will plunge to Earth from above the Indian Ocean on November 13, making it one of the very few space objects whose impact can be accurately predicted. More unusual still,WT1190F was a ‘lost’ piece of space debris orbiting far beyond the Moon, ignored and unidentified, before being glimpsed by a telescope in early October.

Detected by the Catalina Sky Survey at the University of Arizona in the US a few weeks ago, WT1190F’s trajectory has been calculated based on 2012 and 2013 sightings found in old telescope archives. According to Traci Watson at Nature News, it travels a highly elliptical orbit, swinging out twice as far as the Earth-Moon distance, its movements suggesting that it’s low-density enough to be hollow on the inside.

An observing campaign is now taking shape to follow the object as it dives through Earth’s atmosphere, says Gerhard Drolshagen, co-manager of the European Space Agency’s Near-Earth Object office in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. The event offers not just a scientific opportunity, but also tests the plans that astronomers have put in place to coordinate their efforts when a potentially dangerous space object shows up. “What we planned to do seems to work,” Drolshagen says. “But it’s still three weeks to go.”

“It could be a spent rocket stage or paneling shed by a recent Moon mission,”says Watson. “It is also possible that the debris dates back decades, perhaps even to the Apollo era. An object seen orbiting the Earth in 2002 was eventually determined to be a discarded segment of the Saturn V rocket that launched the first men to land on the Moon.”

Amazingly, if scientists do figure out that this thing was made by us and launched into space only to get separated and lost for several years, it will be the first known instance of our own space trash returning home. Or as Jonathan McDowell from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics puts it, “A lost piece of space history that’s come back to haunt us.”

The object is only 1 to 2 metres in size, and its trajectory shows it is low-density, perhaps hollow. That suggests an artificial object, “a lost piece of space history that’s come back to haunt us”, says Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It could be a spent rocket stage or paneling shed by a recent Moon mission. It is also possible that the debris dates back decades, perhaps even to the Apollo era. An object seen orbiting the Earth in 2002 was eventually determined to be a discarded segment of the Saturn V rocket that launched the first men to land on the Moon.

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