Rare, Earth-bound space junk offers a big opportunity for scientists

It’s coming.
It’s coming.
Image: Henry Lee/Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0
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A man-made piece of space debris dubbed “WT1190F” is scheduled to hit Earth on Nov. 13 off the coast of Sri Lanka, reports Nature. Most of the mysterious six-foot (two meter) object will burn up in the atmosphere, but there’s a chance some small fragments could make it back to earth. While scientists aren’t sure what the object is yet, there may be a lot to learn from its surviving pieces.

WT1190F was first spotted in 2013, elliptically orbiting the Earth twice as far as the Earth-moon distance—very strange for space junk. Given its size and orbit, scientists think the object could be a trashed rocket stage from one of the Apollo missions, making it a “lost piece of space history that’s come back to haunt us,” according to Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

While the debris might be a Ghost of Space Past, it’s not scaring anyone, and is extremely unlikely to pose any sort of threat to humans (unless you are deep sea fishing directly beneath where astronomers predict it’ll fall). Scientists hope to use the collision as an unprecedented opportunity to study how objects—man-made or otherwise—careen through the atmosphere. Usually, we have no idea where or when they’ll strike.

NASA says there are 500,000 pieces of space junk flying around the Earth, at speeds up to 17,500 miles per hour (and millions more that are too small to be tracked). At those speeds, even minuscule specks of paint could seriously damage a spacecraft. We’re pretty safe here on Earth, but these objects can be a not-insignificant danger to astronauts in space. You’ve seen Gravity (video).

Image by Henry Lee on Flickr, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.