Mysterious Chunk of Space Trash is on a Collision Course With Earth

Illustration for article titled Mysterious Chunk of Space Trash is on a Collision Course With Earth

A rogue chunk of debris that orbited Earth far beyond the Moon is making a homecoming on November 13th, astronomers have concluded. WT1190F is one to two meters in length and probably hollow, but beyond that, we have no idea WTF the aptly-named piece of space garbage is.

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Much, if not all of WT1190F will burn up in orbit around 06:19 GMT on November 13th. Any remaining fragments will splash into the Indian Ocean just south of Sri Lanka, so if you were planning a fishing outing on that very day, maybe reschedule. The event will go unnoticed by most of the world, but the astronomers who track near-Earth objects are all in a tizzy over it. WT1190F’s atmospheric re-entry is a rare opportunity for scientists to study how incoming objects interact with our atmosphere. It’s also giving astronomers the chance to test-drive a coordinated network they’ve put in place for occasions when more dangerous space objects comes a-knockin’.

A piece of space junk on a collision course with Earth appears as a bright spec in the center of the GIF below. Image Credit: B. Bolin, R. Jedicke, M. Micheli

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I just hope we get to learn what it is. While there are many thousands of piece of space trash — satellite fragments, spent rocket stages, old paneling — orbiting close to the Earth, we’ve only tracked 20 or so artificial objects in distant orbits. WT1190F, with a highly elliptical orbit tracing twice as far out as the Earth-Moon distance, is a pretty special piece of trash. As Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told Nature News, it could be a “lost piece of space history come back to haunt us,” perhaps an old rocket fragment from the Apollo era.

Now that’d be a pretty cool thing for humanity to rediscover — even if it’ll be gone in a flash.

[Nature News]


Follow the author @themadstone

Top: Sunset over the Pacific Ocean, as seen from the ISS. Image Credit: NASA

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DISCUSSION

I must be wrong, but wouldn’t orbital mechanics enable them to discover more or less where and when it originated by just going backwards from its current location? I thought that sort of thing was relatively “simple” or is that just from reading too much early Heinlein? I’m pretty sure logarithms are involved. Then they could just compare it to launches in that window.