NOORDWIJK, The Netherlands, Monday November 2, 2015 – It’s neither the dreaded doomsday planet Nibiru, nor an asteroid or comet with Earth’s name on it. Something is nevertheless headed our way, on course for a mid-November crash to Earth, and experts are watching closely.
According to scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA), who have been tracking this unidentified object, it poses no danger to anyone on Earth.
Appropriately nicknamed “WTF” by some baffled observers, WT1190F was spotted on October 3 by astronomers with the Catalina Sky Survey, a programme based at the University of Arizona, Tucson, aimed at discovering asteroids and comets that swing close to earth.
While astronomers don’t know exactly what WT1190F is, there are a few things they know with some certainty.
Space debris WT1190F captured last night using Lowell’s Discovery Channel Telescope. Can you spot it? pic.twitter.com/89SDcTer5W
— Lowell Observatory (@PercivalLowell) October 28, 2015
According to the ESA’s Near Earth Object Coordination Centre (NEOCC): “First, the object is likely man made. The motion of this body over about two years can be modelled in detail only if the effects of solar radiation pressure are taken into account. The intensity of this solar push is proportional to the object’s area-to-mass ratio, which can therefore be estimated, providing an indirect clue to its density. “It turns out that this body has a mean density that is about 10 percent that of water. This is too low to be a natural space rock, but it is compatible with being a hollow shell, such as the spent upper stage of a rocket. “The second, and even more interesting result, is that the object will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere in a few weeks, around 06:20 UT on 13 November 2015. The object is quite small, at most a couple of meters in diameter, and a significant fraction if not all of it can be expected to completely burn up in the atmosphere.” Whatever is left, the NEOCC said, will fall into the ocean about 100 km off the southern coast of Sri Lanka. “Its mass is not sufficient to cause any threat to the area, but the show will still be spectacular, since for a few seconds the object will become quite bright in the noon sky,” it added.
MPML: We don’t know what it is, but WT1190F has been orbiting Earth since at least 2009/9/26 https://t.co/2acARNEUO1 pic.twitter.com/p8kW9KDTpl — Asteroid Initiatives (@AsteroidEnergy) November 2, 2015
As a safety precaution, the 5 km-long stretch of ocean the mystery object is expected to splash down into should be avoided.
“I would not necessarily want to be going fishing directly underneath it,” said Bill Gray, an independent astronomer/programmer who has been helping track the object with astronomers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
Gray, who runs the Project Pluto desktop planetarium website, says that the latest observations of WT1190F have been linked back to previous sightings in September 2015, and November and February of 2013.
Astronomer Marco Micheli, who made some of the most recent observations, along with B. Bolin and R. Jedicke, using the University of Hawaii 2.2 meter telescope on Mauna Kea, has also found observations going back to December 2012.
These have all gone into plotting the orbit of WT1190F, which traces a long path out beyond the Moon and back, once every three weeks or so.
Equipped with the expected re-entry and splashdown information, scientists are keenly interested in observing WT1190F as it burns up in the atmosphere.
According to Nature, Gerhard Drolshagen, co-manager in The Netherlands of the ESA’s near-Earth objects office, says that it may be possible to identify the object by watching the light it emits as it re-enters the atmosphere.
While experts believe that it is almost certainly man-made, this could narrow down exactly which mission it came from: something recent, such as the launch of China’s Chang-e lander or the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or perhaps something else dating back all the way to the Apollo missions.
Whichever, Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, describes the object as “a lost piece of space history that’s come back to haunt us.”
The ESA believes that seeing exactly how the object burns up will give scientists a chance to “better understand the re-entry of satellites and debris from high orbits,” while coordinating the observation programme represents “an ideal opportunity to test our readiness for any possible future events involving an asteroid, since the components of this scenario, from discovery to impact, are all very similar.”
According to The Weather Network, this will, in a very literal sense, be something of a “crash course” for astronomers and space scientists who track space debris and asteroids.
Researchers are currently tracking only 20 or so artificial objects in distant orbits, says Gareth Williams, an astronomer at the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
There are probably many more such pieces of space junk in orbit around the Earth–Moon system, but it is impossible to say how many. No others are known to have made the return trip to Earth, although it is likely that some have done so without anyone noticing, McDowell says.
— NOAA Satellites (@NOAASatellites) October 30, 2015
Meanwhile, Drolshagen plans to get spectral information on the object, which may help to identify it, and he hopes to coordinate impact observations conducted on-board ships or aeroplanes.
That may nevertheless be the end of the concerted effort to study this class of object. Unlike near-Earth asteroids, space debris that flies well away from Earth has not commanded significant amounts of funding or attention.
The US military, which tracks space debris, says that it lacks the ability to identify WT1190F or to predict its path.
(Sources: The Weather Network / ESA NEOCC / Nature / Project Pluto / Scientific American)