Artificial Object in Trans-lunar Orbit to Impact Earth on November 13

Get ready for a man-made fireball. A object discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey on Oct 3rd temporarily designated WT1190F is predicted to impact the Earth about 60 miles (100 km) off the southern coast of Sri Lanka around 6:20 Universal Time (12:20 a.m CST) on November 13.

The object orbits Earth with a period of about three weeks. Because it was also observed twice in 2013 by the same survey team, astronomers have the data they need to model its orbit and trajectory, and as far anyone can tell,  it’s likely man-made. 

S-IVB stage of Apollo 17. Credit: NASA
The first two stages of the Saturn V rockets used to send the seven Apollo missions to the Moon fell back to Earth, but the third stage (S-IVB), pictured here, propelled the spacecraft into a lunar trajectory. Could this be WT1190F? Credit: NASA

Solar radiation pressure, the physical “push” exerted by photons of sunlight, is proportional to a space object’s area-to-mass ratio. Small, lightweight objects get pushed around more easily than heavier, denser ones. Taking that factor into account in examining WT1190F’s motion over two years, the survey team has indirectly measured WT1190F’s density at about 10% that of water. This is too low to be a typical asteroid made of rock, but a good fit with a hollow shell, possibly the upper stage of a rocket.

Spectacular re-entry of the Jules Verne ATV-1 cargo ship over the Pacific Ocean on September 29, 2008. Still image definition TV camera operated by Jessie Carpenter and Bill Moede of NASA Ames Research Center
Spectacular re-entry of the Jules Verne ATV-1 cargo ship over the Pacific Ocean on September 29, 2008. Still image from a TV camera operated by Jessie Carpenter and Bill Moede of NASA Ames Research Center. A similar spectacle is expected on November 13 south of Sri Lanka.

It’s also quite small, at most only about six feet or a couple of meters in diameter. Most or all of it is likely to burn up upon re-entry, creating a spectacular show for anyone near the scene. During the next week and a half, the European Space Agency’s NEO (Near-Earth Object) Coordination Center is organizing observing campaigns to collect as much data as possible on the object, according to a posting on their website. The agency has two goals: to better understand satellite re-entries from high orbits and to use the opportunity to test our readiness for a possible future event involving a real asteroid. The latter happened once before when 2008 TC3 (a real asteroid) was spotted on October 6, 2008 and predicted to strike Earth the very next day. Incredibly, it did and peppered the Sudan with meteorites that were later recovered.

Assuming WT1190F is artificial, its trans-lunar orbit (orbit that carries it beyond the Moon) hints at several possibilities. Third stages from the Saturn-V rockets that launched the Apollo missions to the Moon are still out there. It could also be a stage from one of the old Russian or more recent Chinese lunar missions. Even rockets used to give interplanetary probes a final push are game.

J002E3 discovery images taken by Bill Yeung on September 3, 2002. J002E3 is in the circle. Images taken with Astroworks Centurion 18" f2.8 scope and Apogee AP9e CCD camera, 10 u second exposure. Auto detected with PinPoint Astrometry Engine by Bob Denny. North is up. Animation created by Bob Denny.
Near-Earth object J002E3 discovery images taken by Bill Yeung on September 3, 2002. The 16th magnitude object was tentatively identified as the Apollo 12 third stage rocket. Animation created by Bob Denny.

Case in point. What was thought initially to be a new asteroid discovered by amateur astronomer Bill Yeung on September 3, 2002 proved a much better fit with an Apollo 12 S-IVB (third) stage after University of Arizona astronomers found that spectra taken of the object strongly correlated with absorption features seen in a combination of man-made materials including white paint, black paint, and aluminum, all consistent with Saturn V rockets.

On April 14th 1970, the Apollo 13 Saturn IVB upper stage impacted the moon north of Mare Cognitum, at -2.55° latitude, -27.88° East longitude. The impact crater, which is roughly 30 meters in diameter, is clearly visible in LROC NAC image M109420042LE. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University
On April 14th 1970, the Apollo 13 Saturn IVB upper stage impacted the moon north of Mare Cognitum. The impact crater, which is roughly 30 meters in diameter, is clearly visible in this photo taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

Apollo 13’s booster was the first deliberately crashed into the Moon, where it blew out it a crisp, 98-foot-wide (30-meter) crater. Why do such a crazy thing? What better way to test the seismometers left by the Apollo 12 crew? All subsequent boosters ended their lives similarly in the name of seismography. Third stages from earlier missions — Apollos 8, 10 and 11 —  entered orbit around the Sun, while Apollo 12, which is orbiting Earth, briefly masqueraded as asteroid J002E3.

The nominal impact point is located about 60 miles south of the island nation Sri Lanka. Credit: Bill Gray at Project Pluto
The nominal impact point is located about 60 miles south of the island nation Sri Lanka. Given the object’s small size and mass, it will likely be completely incinerated during re-entry. Credit: Bill Gray at Project Pluto

Bill Gray at Project Pluto has a page up about the November 13 impact of WT1190F with more information. Satellite and asteroid watchers are hoping to track the object before and right up until it burns up in the atmosphere. Currently, it’s extremely faint and moving eastward in Orion. You can click HERE for an ephemeris giving its position at the JPL Horizons site. How exciting if we could see whatever’s coming down before its demise on Friday the 13th!

Bazinga: Mysterious Earth Orbiting Asteroid Turns Out to be Space Junk

Can’t find asteroid 2010 QW1 in the Minor Planet Database? No, the “Men in Black” didn’t secretly remove this Earth-orbiting asteroid from the listing… but recent top-notch detective work by astronomers did.

The mystery of this object all started back on August 23rd of this year, when the PanSTARRS sky survey based on the summit of Haleakala on the island of Maui in Hawai’i spotted an asteroid that was given the provisional designation of 2013 QW1.

The object was in a wide-ranging orbit around the Earth, leading astronomers to wonder if it was a naturally captured asteroid or perhaps space debris from a previous launch. Either solution to the dilemma would be fascinating. Our large Moon keeps the Earth pretty well swept clear of debris, though a “second Moon,” however small, would be an interesting find. And if 2013 QW1 were to prove artificial, it just might be a piece of history.

The European Space Agency’s NEO Coordination Centre decided to take up the challenge. A call went out to track and observe the 2013 QW1, and a team led by Elisabetta Dotto of INAF-Observatorio di Roma & Maria Barucci & Davide Perna of the Observatoire de Paris managed to get time on the Italian Telescopio Nazaionale Galileo based at La Palma to obtain a spectrum of the object.

“It was a bit of a challenge, because the object was moving fast with respect to a typical NEO,” said Dr. Perna in a recent ESA press release.

The team used an instrument known as DOLORES to make the crucial measurements. DOLORES stands for the Device Optimized for LOw RESolution. The spectrum obtained in the early morning hours of August 25th shows something much brighter than your typical asteroid, but is characteristic of a painted metallic object.

The launch of Chan'ge-2 with 3rd stage (arrowed) now known as 2010 Q (Credit CALT).
The launch of Chan’ge-2 with 3rd stage (arrowed) now known as 2013 QW1 (Credit: CALT).

And thus, 2013 QW1 was removed from the ledger of NEO asteroids maintained by the IAU Minor Planet Center (MPEC). And the leading suspect? The third stage booster of a Chinese Long March 3C rocket that launched the Chang’e 2 spacecraft from Xichang, China on October 1st, 2010.

Chang’e-2 entered lunar orbit 8 days after launch, and departed on June 8th of the following year after studying and mapping the Moon. Chang’e-2 then went on to become the first spacecraft to directly reach the L2 Lagrange point 1.5 million kilometres beyond Earth from lunar orbit. The spacecraft also made the first flyby of NEO asteroid 4179 Toutatis on December 13th of last year. The probe is estimated to continue functioning into 2014, and will be used to hone China’s ability to track objects in deep space.

The NORAD tracking identification assigned to the 3rd stage booster that launched Chan’ge-2 is 2010-50B.

This sort of discovery is not without precedent.

The launch of Apollo 12, with the 2nd stage arrowed. (Credit: NASA).
The launch of Apollo 12, with the 3rd stage (arrowed) would one day be “asteroid Joo2E3”. (Credit: NASA).

On September 3rd, 2002, amateur astronomer Bill Yeung discovered an asteroid tentatively designated J002E3. Subsequent studies revealed that the asteroid had a spectrum consistent with that of titanium oxide paint, a decidedly unasteroid-like coating for a space rock to sport. This was, however, a common veneer in use during the Apollo era, and it is now known that J002E3 is the S-IVB third stage booster that launched the second mission to land men on the Moon on November 14th, 1969. Unlike other boosters, such as the one that launched Apollo 14, the Apollo 12 3rd stage did not impact the Moon as part of seismic experiments. After a brief period as a “pseudo-moon” of the Earth, J002E3 was kicked out into solar orbit in June 2003 and may return to our neighborhood once again in the 2040s.     

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has documented the lunar crash sites of these historic boosters. It’s of note that the Apollo 10 Lunar Module Snoopy remains discarded out in solar orbit as well, having been used as a dress rehearsal for the historic Apollo 11 landing. Apollo 10 never landed on the Moon. Efforts have been made by UK astronomer Nick Howes to recover it as well.

And there are more relics of the Space Age awaiting discovery. One of the first things we always check in the case of a pass by a newly discovered NEO closer than the Moon to the Earth is its history, to see if it matches up with any launches headed out beyond Earth orbit in the past.

And the upcoming Mars launches of MAVEN and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission in October & November will be the first to depart Earth orbit since 2011. These will give future generations of asteroid hunters new human-made space hardware to ponder.

The B612 Foundation’s asteroid-hunting Sentinel Space Telescope will also “up the game,” scouting for asteroids from a vantage point interior to the Earth’s orbit. Sentinel is slated for launch in 2016 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

And no, the fabled “Black Knight” satellite of UFO conspiracy buffs’ dreams is nowhere to be found.

What other fascinating relics of the Space Age lie are out there in the solar system, waiting to tell their tale?