SCIENCE

Scientists Say 'WTF' Space Object Will Crash Into Indian Ocean Next Month

The object does not pose a threat, but "the show will still be spectacular."

A hunk of mysterious space junk is en route for a crash landing in the Indian Ocean next month, according to the European Space Agency.

Officially, the object is named WT1190F. Unofficially, however, its name has been appropriately shortened to "WTF."

The European Space Agency said in a release that it believes the object is a discarded rocket body. While its reentry "poses very little risk to anyone," it could help scientists improve our understanding of how any object -- man-made or natural -- interacts with Earth’s atmosphere.

The reentry of the ATV-1, a European satellite that was de-orbited over the Pacific Ocean on Sept. 28, 2008.
The reentry of the ATV-1, a European satellite that was de-orbited over the Pacific Ocean on Sept. 28, 2008.

"The object is quite small," Tim Flohrer of ESA’s Space Debris Office in Darmstadt, Germany, said in a release, "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."

Whatever remains is expected to fall into the ocean about 60 miles off the southern coast of Sri Lanka at around 11:49 a.m. local time on Nov. 13.

ESA said that while its mass does not pose a risk, the show "will still be spectacular, since for a few seconds the object will become quite bright in the mid-day sky." 

WT1190F was discovered in 2013 by the Catalina Sky Survey, based at the University of Arizona, and has been spotted several times since then

Nature reports the object was previously orbiting far beyond the Moon, "ignored and unidentified," when a telescope spotted it earlier this month. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told the publication it is “a lost piece of space history that’s come back to haunt us.”

It is now orbiting Earth every three weeks in a "highly eccentric," or non-circular, orbit, according to the ESA scientists.

News of "WTF" comes just days after a NASA announcement about a larger -- but also non-threatening -- object headed in Earth's direction.

On Halloween, a recently discovered asteroid, dubbed 2015 TB145, will come within 310,000 miles of Earth -- nearly as close as our own moon. It will be the closest encounter our planet has had with an asteroid of this size in nearly a decade.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicated that 2015 TB145 would be the asteroid to pass closest to the Earth in nearly a decade. In February of 2013, a much smaller asteroid, 2012 DA14, came within just 17,200 miles of Earth -- passing inside the ring of geosynchronous weather and communications satellites. One does have to go back almost a decade to find an asteroid of comparable size that passed closer.

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