Arizona Astronomers Track Piece of Falling Space Junk

Nov 12, 2015

A piece of space junk will fall to Earth over the Indian Ocean late tonight. Arizona astronomers discovered the object and plan to track its fiery descent.

Each dot in this illustration is a tracked object in low-Earth orbit.
Credit NASA

Millions of tiny bits of trash orbit the Earth, left over from space missions dating back to the Apollo Age. One such piece is about to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere – and, for the first time, astronomers have been able to predict when and where that will happen.

Eric Christensen leads the Catalina Sky Survey in Tucson, which discovered the object last month. He says the survey searches for comets and asteroids, and usually doesn’t find fast-moving space junk. “So it takes a very unusual object and an unusual orbit like this one for us to even be sensitive to it,” he says.  

Astronomer Nick Moskovitz of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff is tracking the object. He says it’s a unique opportunity to observe a celestial impact. “This is a great test case to try out all of those capabilities to make sure we can do this well,” he says.  

The data could help future efforts to detect and understand hazardous objects, like asteroids. This piece of space junk poses no threat. Moskovitz says it’ll create a fireball as bright as the moon for viewers near Sri Lanka.  

The object, labelled WT1190F, moves against the backdrop of stars in these discovery images.
Credit Catalina Sky Survey / The University of Arizona