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Mystery object’s breakup caught on video

Scientists flying on an instrument-laden jet captured great video views of a mysterious space object known as WT1190F as it streaked through the air and burned up over the Indian Ocean today.

The pictures were put on the Web just hours after the object, which is thought to have been debris from a rocket or spacecraft, re-entered Earth’s atmosphere at 06:18 GMT Friday (10:18 p.m. PT Thursday).

WT1190F was discovered by astronomers with the Catalina Sky Survey just last month, but an analysis of archived telescope data revealed that the object had been tracing a highly elliptical Earth orbit for years, ranging up to twice as far away as the moon.

The analysis also showed that the object was relatively lightweight, and measured about 6 feet (2 meters) in length. That’s what led experts on orbital debris to conclude that it was a piece of space junk.

There are thousands of bits of space junk orbiting our planet, but what’s remarkable about WT1190F is that its atmospheric re-entry could be calculated so precisely in advance. The pictures and data captured from a Gulfstream jet flying out of Abu Dhabi provides the evidence that scientists nailed it.

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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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