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 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.
An observing campaign is now taking shape to follow the object as it dives through Earth’s atmosphere, says Gerhard Drolshagen, co-manager in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, of the European Space Agency’s near-Earth objects office. The event not only offers a scientific opportunity to watch something plunge through the atmosphere, 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.”
Plenty of time, right?
WT1190F travels a highly elliptical orbit, swinging out twice as far as the Earth–Moon distance, Gray says. Gray’s calculations show that it will hit Earth at 6:20 utc, hitting the ocean about 65 kilometers off the southern tip of Sri Lanka. Much, if not all, of it will burn up in the atmosphere, but “I would not necessarily want to be going fishing directly underneath it”, Gray says.
No one’s quite sure about the origin of this space junk — some think it might date back to the Apollo era. Then again, it could be some flotsam from that secret Nazi military base on the Moon…