Saturday, November 14, 2015

Mysterious Object Burns Up in Earth's Atmosphere

Object tagged as ‘WT1190F’ reenters Earth’s atmosphere south of Sri Lanka on Nov. 13, 2015 Credits: IAC/UAE/NASA/ESA

Just after 1:18 AM EST (6:18 AM UTC) on Friday, Nov. 13 an object tagged as WT1190F reentered Earth’s atmosphere as predicted above the Indian Ocean, just off the southern tip of Sri Lanka. The object - most likely man-made space debris from some previous lunar or interplanetary mission – burned up on reentry and was not a threat to anyone on Earth due to its low density and small size (3-6 feet or 1-2 meters).

As confirmed by experts at ESA's NEO Coordination Centre (NEOCC), ESRIN, Italy, WT1190F is thought to be a discarded rocket body; it is orbiting Earth every three weeks in a highly ‘eccentric’ – that is, non-circular – orbit.

“NEO experts have used observational data to estimate the object’s density, which turns out to be much less than that of the solid rocky material that comprises many asteroids,” said Detlef Koschny, responsible for NEO activities at ESA’s Space Situational Awareness (SSA) programme office.

“This density is in fact compatible with the object being a hollow shell, such as the spent upper stage of a rocket body or part of a stage.”

“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,” Tim Flohrer, from ESA’s Space Debris Office at the ESOC operations center in Darmstadt, Germany, said in October.

The object was detected while still on a large elongated orbit about the Earth on Oct. 3 by the Catalina Sky Survey (CSS), one of the NASA-funded asteroid search projects operated by the University of Arizona and located near Tucson. The U.S. Air Force Space Command had primary responsibility for tracking it, though NASA was also interested in tracking this object because its final trajectory was entering Earth’s atmosphere at an angle more like an asteroid from interplanetary space than of a typical piece of space debris.

This event was therefore good to practice some of the procedures that NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program would follow if a small asteroid were on a collision course with Earth. Those procedures include detecting and tracking of the object, characterizing its physical parameters, calculating its trajectory with high precision modeling, and delivering accurate predictions to scientists who would like to observe the entry through Earth’s atmosphere. 

Images of WT1190F were captured by researchers from the SETI institute, the International Astronomical Center in Abu Dhabi, and other institutions, who were observing from a Gulfstream jet.

Amateur astronomers watching from the ground didn't see much due to cloudy conditions.

Currently there are around 500,000 piece of space junk orbiting Earth, according to NASA. Each of them are traveling at 17,500 miles per hour, which makes them a serious threat when it comes to damaging satellites and spacecraft.


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