Mystery space object heads for Indian Ocean

Image: Hayabusa re-entry
An image taken from a NASA DC-8 airplane shows the re-entry of Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft in 2010. WT1190F’s re-entry will be less spectacular because it’s due to occur at midday local time. (Credit: Jesse Carpenter / Greg Merkes / NASA Ames file)

Is it a spent Apollo rocket stage from the ’60s? A scary space rock? Whatever it is, the mysterious object known as WT1190F is zooming in from deep space – and it’s expected to go out in a blaze of glory tonight.

The big question is whether anyone will see that blaze. Experts on orbital debris estimate that WT1190F is a low-density, possibly hollow object measuring just 6 feet (2 meters long). Astronomers with the Catalina Sky Survey first observed the object in October. When they looked back at archived telescope data, they figured out that it’s been tracing a highly eccentric orbit around Earth that swings out beyond the moon’s orbit.

The European Space Agency says the best match for an object with those characteristics is a “discarded rocket body.” Other observers suggest it could be debris cast off by a moon mission, perhaps going back to the Apollo era. No wonder the thing has been nicknamed “WTF.”

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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