A mysterious chunk of space debris called ‘WTF’ is headed straight for Earth

Space junk
Illustration of ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) burning up in the atmosphere. ESA – D.Ducros

Space junk is becoming a real problem.

Today, millions of pieces of it huddle within the region of space just beyond our planet.

Sometimes this debris is carefully guided into Earth’s atmosphere, where friction between the object and particles in Earth’s atmosphere generates extreme heat that completely incinerates the object before it can reach ground.

Other times, however, smaller chunks will randomly fall back to Earth, and scientists have never known when — or what — will be falling toward us on a given day — until now.

For the first time, experts have calculated the exact time and location a piece of space junk will collide with Earth.

Because of its orbit and apparent hollow structure, experts suspect this object, dubbed WT1190F, is not natural but a residual hunk of space junk, possibly left over from an Apollo mission.

It’s scheduled to collide with Earth over the Indian Ocean — about 62 miles off the coast of Sri Lanka — at exactly 2:20 pm ET on November 17, according to independent astronomy-software developer Bill Grey.

Don’t worry, humankind is safe

Luckily, the chances of WT1190F causing any damage are slim to none.

Tim Flohrer, who works with the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Space Debris Office in Germany, suspects that, because of its size which is about three to five feet wide, all of WT1190F will burn up before it can collide with the surface and cause damage.

This is a major concern, because even if a piece as small as a pebble reached the ground, it would travelling at over 25,000 miles per hour — 32 times faster than the speed of sound. As a precautionary measure, Grey told Nature: “I would not necessarily want to be going fishing directly underneath it.”

The University of Hawaii’s 2.2 meter telescope on Mauna Kea snapped this picture of the object below on Oct. 9:


Here’s a GIF of it moving against some background objects. This image has not been processed, which is why it’s incredibly grainy:


Since the object was identified earlier this month by the Catalina Sky Survey a number of astronomers have taken to observatories around the world to study this popular piece of space junk.

Space junk science

“The first goal will be to better understand the reentry of satellites and debris from highly eccentric orbits,” Marco Micheli, who is an astronomer at ESA’s Near Earth Object Coordination Center (NEOCC), told Phys.org.

Space debris junk trash orbital
This is a graphic of all tracked debris in Earth’s orbit. About 95 per cent of these objects are non-functional NASA

What makes WT1190F different from the millions of other bits of space junk out there is that it has a highly eccentric orbit, which means its orbit around Earth is more oval-shaped than circular. Moreover, this object’s orbit transports it to distances twice as far as our moon and back. It takes about three weeks to complete a single orbit.

“Second, it provides an ideal opportunity to test our readiness for any possible future atmospheric entry events involving an asteroid, since the component of this scenario, from discovery to impact, are all very similar,” Micheli continued.

Because of its highly eccentric orbit, some experts think the object could be a residual rocket stage or piece of paneling from a past Moon mission — “a lost piece of space history that’s come back to haunt us,” Jonathan McDoweel, who is an astrophysicist at the Harvard — Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts, told Nature.

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