An unknown piece of space junk is zipping around Earth in an "erratic" and unusual orbit. The object, known as A10bMLz, is being referred to as an “empty trash bag object” due to its resemblance to a plastic bag drifting about in the wind.
It was sighted by both the ATLAS survey in Hawaii and the Zwicky Transient Facility on Palomar Mountain in California on January 25. Northolt Branch Observatories, a London-based observatory, then spotted the object the next day around 293,000 kilometers (182,061 miles) above the Earth's surface. They say that similar "empty trash bag objects" have been observed before, but never at such a distance.
Rest assured, A10bMLz is not likely to be an actual trash bag, despite humans’ penchant for dumping plastic trash in places it shouldn’t be. Nevertheless, the object is believed to be a light piece of human-made space junk, such as metallic foil spat out from a rocket launch.
“At some point, it seemed as if it was going to impact Earth in July 2019,” Daniel Bamberger from Northolt Branch Observatories told IFLScience. “But eventually, it became clear that it was artificial, and that its orbit was fairly erratic, and any attempt to predict its future path (including possible impacts) are futile at this time.”
“The last time the object was seen was on the morning of January 27 by Peter Birtwhistle at Great Shefford Observatory, when it was about as far from Earth as the Moon,” Bamberger continued. “It was considerably fainter than predicted from the earlier observations."
Earth is cluttered with well over 500,000 pieces of space junk, around 20,000 of which are bigger than a baseball, that are currently orbiting the planet at speeds of up to 28,100 kilometers (17,500 miles) per hour, according to NASA. Space agencies do a good job at tracking most of this orbital junk, however, small pieces are often impossible to track.
“This is a small, very light object of the sort I've been referring to as Empty Trash-Bag Objects, or ETBOs,” Bill Gray wrote on the Project Pluto site. “Judging by its brightness, this object might be a few meters across, in which case its mass appears to be under a kilogram. Note that those are very approximate values."
Most space junk is relatively harmless, but it can cause some real problems for satellites and other spacefaring vehicles. For example, in August 2016, a small piece of debris punctured a 40-centimeter (15-inch) hole in the European Space Agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-1A satellite.
Thankfully, it looks unlikely that A10bMLz will cause any such trouble.