NEWS: On 27 October 2015, several web sites published stories about a “mysterious” object that was on a “collision course” with earth. While it’s true that an object dubbed WT1190F is expected to enter Earth’s atmosphere, scientists are not concerned about its colliding with our planet.
WT1190F was first discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey in 2013; and while the object has not been definitively identified, the European Space Agency reports that it is some type of man-made object, such as a discarded rocket body:
As confirmed by experts at ESA’s NEO Coordination Centre (NEOCC), ESRIN, Italy, the object, dubbed WT1190F, is thought to be a discarded rocket body; it is orbiting Earth every three weeks in a highly ‘eccentric’ — that is, non-circular — orbit.
“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,” says Detlef Koschny, responsible for NEO activities at ESA’s Space Situational Awareness (SSA) programme office.
“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.”
The claim that the object is on a “collision course” with earth is also a little exaggerated. According to the ESA, object WT1190F is only a couple of meters in diameter and is expected to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere:
It is now predicted to reenter Earth’s atmosphere in a few weeks, around 06:19 GMT (11:49 local; 07:19 CET) on 13 November 2015.
“The object is quite small, at most a couple of metres in diameter, and a significant fraction if not all of it can be expected to completely burn up in the atmosphere,” says Tim Flohrer, from ESA’s Space Debris Office at the ESOC operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany.
Whatever is left is expected to fall into the ocean about 100 km off the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Its mass is not sufficient to cause any risk to the area, but the show will still be spectacular, since for a few seconds the object will become quite bright in the mid-day sky.
It should also be noted that many people talking about this piece of space debris have incorrectly labeled it WTF1190F. While some may find the WTF identifier for an unknown piece of debris amusing, the object’s name is actually WT1190F.