A recently discovered piece of space junk will plunge into the ocean 100 kilometers (62 miles) off the south coast of Sri Lanka on Friday, November 13, at around 12 p.m. local time. The object is a rarity among space junk as scientists were able to not only track its trajectory but also to accurately predict where it’s going to impact.
It was observed for the first time on February 18, 2013, by the Catalina Sky Survey, a program that looks for near-Earth objects (NEOs) such as potentially dangerous asteroids and comets. Named WT1190F, it’s a few meters in diameter and has a very low density, about one-tenth of water. Such a low value is improbable for a natural object, indicating that it's almost certainly of artificial origin, most likely a discarded fuel tank or the upper stage of a rocket.
It has a highly eccentric orbit, ranging between more than 600,000 kilometers (373,00 miles) to just below 36,000 kilometers (22,000 miles) from Earth. The motion of the object has been significantly influenced by solar radiation pressure: Light rays from the Sun have pushed WT1190F more and more towards the Earth, like how the wind pushes a sailboat forward.
The object is not massive enough to cause damage, and it will most likely burn through the atmosphere before re-entry. Astronomers believe that the object will create quite the show across the midday sky, burning brightly for a few seconds.
Scientists at ESA’s NEO Coordination Centre (NEOCC) believe this event is a unique opportunity to test how astronomers would coordinate if a dangerous object was approaching us. The NEOCC will run observational campaigns across the world to collect as much data as possible on this object in the upcoming weeks.
“The first goal will be to better understand the reentry of satellites and debris from highly eccentric orbits,” Marco Micheli, an astronomer working at the NEOCC, said in a statement. “Second, it provides an ideal opportunity to test our readiness for any possible future atmospheric entry events involving an asteroid, since the components of this scenario, from discovery to impact, are all very similar.”
There is currently no coordinated plan to track space debris beyond the lower orbits.