An unusual object discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey in 2013 is expected to enter the Earth's atmosphere on November 13, 2015. The object, suspected to be of man-made origin, most likely a rocket body, will put on a spectacular show while passing through the atmosphere before falling into the ocean off the Sri Lanka coast, according to European Space Agency's (ESA) Near Earth Object Coordination Center (NEOCC) in Italy.
The discovered object was first observed by the Catalina Sky Survey in 2013, and has been seen on a few occasions since. It was named WT1190F and is orbiting Earth with a period of 3 weeks in a highly eccentric orbit. The object is of a low density when compared to density values of solid rock bodies, and is most likely a discarded rocket body, according to ESA's experts.
“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.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," explained Detlef Koschny, responsible for NEO activities at ESA’s Space Situational Awareness (SSA) programme office.
WT1190F is expected to re-enter Earth's atmosphere around 06:19 UTC on November 13, and will provide a good opportunity to gather useful data aimed to improve understanding of how objects interact with our atmosphere.
The re-entry poses very low risk to anyone, according to the scientists, and offers a great potential for improving orbital models and re-entry prediction tools. The scientists are also hoping to make use of the data to study the orbital decay of artificial objects, such as satellites.
“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,” said Tim Flohrer, from ESA’s Space Debris Office at the ESOC operations center in Darmstadt, Germany.
The WT1190F's leftovers are expected to fall into the ocean about 100 km (62 miles) off the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Luckily, its mass is so small it poses no threat, however, the scientists expect its fall will be quite spectacular, as the object will appear strongly illuminated in the daylight sky.
What is so special about this object is that, although it's most likely of artificial nature, its orbit is very similar to a NEO orbit. This gives the researchers an opportunity to predict the impact time and location very accurately and in advance, something that is not usually feasible with other re-entering space debris object.
NEOCC is planning to implement observational campaigns to gather as much data as possible during the objects reentry, over the next couple of weeks: "The first goal will be to better understand the reentry of satellites and debris from highly eccentric orbits. 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," Marco Micheli, NEOCC astronomer, said.
All the astronomers who are interested in the phenomena and willing to participate in observing the object are encouraged to contact ESA’s NEOCC for further information.
Featured image: Detecting space hazards, Artist's impression. Image credit: ESA-CC BY-SA IGO 3.0