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A Mysterious Piece of Space Junk Is Headed for Earth, and Astronomers Are Stoked

An unidentified piece of space debris originating from beyond the Moon is giving astronomers the rare chance to observe an object on a collision course with Earth.

by Rachel Pick
Oct 25 2015, 3:40pm

NASA graphic of orbital debris. Image: NASA

An unidentified piece of space debris originating from beyond the Moon is giving astronomers the rare chance to observe an object on a collision course with Earth.

The object, named WT1190F, is unique in that its trajectory has been unusually easy for scientists to determine; with most space objects, accurately pinpointing a date of impact is difficult. But Bill Gray, from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has even established a time for entry: 6:20 AM UTC, on November 13.

WT1190F's entry will give astronomers across the globe the chance to test out the network they've established amongst themselves in case a more dangerous space object sets its course for Earth. Most of WT1190F will burn up in the atmosphere, and what's left will plunk into the Indian Ocean, so it poses little danger—though Gray told Nature he "would not necessarily want to be going fishing directly underneath it."

Aside from its size and the fact that it is most likely hollow, astronomers haven't been able to determine much about what WT1190F might be, though its hollow quality is a strong indicator that it is manmade. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Nature it could be "a lost piece of space history that's come back to haunt us": paneling or a spent rocket stage from an old lunar mission.

McDowell also lamented how little attention and funding has been granted to the study of more distant space debris. While Earth's lower orbits are packed with space junk, currently, only 20 artificial items in distant orbits are being tracked, though there are probably many more.