Why scientists can't wait for a piece of trash to fall to Earth

Astronomers will be keeping a close eye on the Indian Ocean next month for a hunk of space debris expected to crash down off the coast of Sri Lanka.

This is computer generated image shows an artist impression of catalogued objects in low-Earth orbit viewed over the Equator. Astronomers expect a significant chunk of space debris to land in the Indian Ocean on Nov. 14.

Astronomers predict that on November 13 a piece of “space junk” will plummet to Earth from above the Indian Ocean, about 40 miles off the coast of Sri Lanka. Most of the unidentified object will likely burn up, with any leftovers expected to plunge into the ocean.

Astronomers say the object, dubbed WT1190F, is likely a component from a rocket or from a recent mission to the moon. Skywatchers first spotted the debris earlier this month from the Catalina Sky Survey, a lab at the University of Arizona in Tucson that identifies asteroids and comets that swing close to Earth.

"It's coming in fast and will get very hot,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told Popular Mechanics. “It's possible a few dense parts of say a rocket engine will survive to impact the ocean," he said. ​

NASA estimates that there are roughly 500,000 pieces of debris orbiting the planet, and some of that detritus inevitably falls back to Earth every year. While much of it burns up in the atmosphere, it can cause problems for people on Earth. As The Christian Science Monitor previously reported: "In 2006, a Chilean airliner carrying 270 passengers came within 35 seconds of colliding with a derelict Russian satellite that was plummeting into the Pacific faster than the speed of sound."

Although space debris hits Earth each year, researchers don’t often spot it before it strikes. Identifying WT1190F before it touches down is a win for astronomers because it allows them to study its trajectory and to test their worldwide response procedures in case a dangerous space object crashes onto Earth, reports Nature.

“What we planned to do seems to work,” Gerhard Drolshagen, co-manager of the European Space Agency’s near-Earth objects office in the Netherlands, told Nature. “But it’s still three weeks to go,” he said.

WT1190F is between 3 to 7 feet in size, astronomers say, and with a low density and probably hollow, suggesting it's an empty rocket stage. Dr. McDowell calls it “a lost piece of space history that’s come back to haunt us” as it is possible that the object has been orbiting far beyond the moon for decades, dating back to the Apollo program of the 1960s and early 70s.

Although this piece of debris is not expected to cause any damage on Earth when it touches down on November 13, “I would not necessarily want to be going fishing directly underneath it,” astronomy software developer Bill Gray, who has been tracking the debris with astronomers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Nature.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Why scientists can't wait for a piece of trash to fall to Earth
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today