Back in September, the Pan-STARRS1 survey telescope noticed an object that followed a slight but distinctly curved path in the sky, a telltale sign that it was captured by Earth’s gravity. Initially, this object was thought to be a near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) and was given a standard designation by the Minor Planet Center (2020 SO). However, the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at NASA JPL had another theory.
Based on its orbit and the way solar radiation appeared to be pushing it off course, NASA scientists have since concluded that the object might actually be the spent upper stage booster of the Centaur rocket that launched the Surveyor 2 spacecraft towards the Moon in 1966. This finding could have implications for future surveys that pick up mysterious objects near Earth (‘Oumuamua occur).
No one’s 100% certain what WT1190F is — asteroid or rocket stage — but we are certain it will light up like a Roman candle when it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere around 6:20 Universal Time (12:20 a.m. CST) tomorrow morning Nov. 13.
Animation by Jost Jahn of WT1190F’s final hours as it races across the sky coming down off the coast of Sri Lanka
As described in an earlier story at Universe Today, an object discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey on Oct 3rd and temporarily designated WT1190F is expected to burn up about 60 miles (100 km) off the southern coast of Sri Lanka overnight. The same team observed it twice in 2013. Based upon the evolution of its orbit, astronomers determined that the object is only about six feet (2-meters) across with a very low density, making it a good fit for a defunct rocket booster, possibly one used to launch either one of the Apollo spacecraft or the Chinese Chang’e 3 lander to the Moon.
Additional observations of WT1190F have been made in the past few days confirming its re-entry later tonight. Checking the latest predictions on Bill Gray of Project Pluto’s page, the object will likely be visible from Europe about an hour before “touchdown”. To say it will be moving quickly across the sky is an understatement. Try about 3 arc minutes per second or 3° a minute! Very tricky to find and track something moving that fast.
58 minutes later, in the minute of time from 6:18 to 6:19 UT, WT1190F will move one full hour of right ascension and plummet 34° in declination while brightening from magnitude +8 to +4.5. If you’d like to attempt to find and follow the object, head over to JPL’s Horizons site for the latest ephemerides and orbital elements. At the site, make sure that WT1190F is in the Target Body line. If not, click Change and search for WT1190F in the Target Body field at the bottom of the window.
You’ll find updates at Bill Gray’s site. According to the most recent positions, the object will pass almost exactly in front of the Sun shortly before plunging into the ocean. Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, is expected to get the best views.
Because the mystery object’s arrival has been fairly well publicized, I hope to update you with a full report and photos first thing tomorrow morning. Like many of you, I wish I could see the show.
“It first looked like a plane with fire coming out of the tail.”— Aaron O.
“I have never seen anything like it. Big, bright and moving gently across sky – slower than a plane, not falling at all but moving across.” — Shannon H.
“Viewed from cockpit of aircraft at 37,000′. Was visible for two or three minutes.”— Landy T.
Flaming plane? Incandescent visitor from the asteroid belt? As the these comments from the AMS Fireball Log attest, the brilliant and s-l-o-w fireball that seared the sky over southeastern Australia tonight was probably one of the most spectacular displays of re-entering space junk witnessed in recent years.
Ted Molczan, citizen satellite tracker and frequent contributor to the amateur satellite watchers SeeSat-L site, notes that the timing and appearance almost certainly point to the decay or de-orbiting of the Russian Soyuz 2-1B rocket booster that launched the meteorological satellite Meteor M2 on July 8.
Meteor over New South Wales. Look closely near the end and you’ll see it disintegrate into small pieces.
The magnificent man-made meteor, weighing some 4,400 pounds (2,000 kg), was seen from Melbourne to Sydney across the states of Victoria and New South Wales around 10 p.m. Hundreds of people were stopped in their tracks. Most noticed how slowly the fireball traveled and how long it continue to burn on the way down.
Spacecraft that reenter from either orbital decay or controlled entry usually break up at altitudes between 45-52 miles (84-72 km) traveling around 17,500 mph (28,000 km/hour) . Compression and friction from the ever-thickening air cause the craft, or in this case, the rocket booster, to slow down and heat up to flaming incandescence just like a hunk of space rock arriving from the asteroid belt. In both cases, we see a brilliant meteor, however manmade debris.
Occasional meteoroids break apart in the atmosphere and scatter meteorites just as pieces of occasional satellites, especially large, heavy craft, can survive the plunge and land intact – if a tad toasted. Whether anything remains of Russian rocket stage or where exactly it fell is still unknown. Here are a few more photos of successful space junk arrivals.
Reportedly, only one person has been struck by satellite debris. In 1997 Lottie Williams of Tulsa, Oklahoma was hit on the shoulder while walking by a small, twisted piece of metal weighing as much as a crushed soda can. It was traced back to the tank of a Delta II rocket that launched a satellite in 1996. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before someone else gets hit, but the odds aren’t great. More likely, you’ll see what alarmed and delighted so many southeastern Australians Thursday night: a grand show of disintegration.