June 3, 2020

Astronomy Video of the Week-Captured: the Reentry of WT1190F

Reentry of WT1190F.

Image credit: The International Astronomical Center

They caught it!

We recently wrote an article for Sky & Telescope magazine online discussing the mystery object WT1190F. This two metre-sized body reentered over the Indian Ocean south of Sri Lanka on November 13th, 2015, and a team from the SETI Institute and the International Astronomical Center in Dhabi managed to capture the event from the air. The feat required careful planning on the part of the observers, a modified Gulfstream 450 business jet, and luck that the weather and cloud cover cooperated.

But the question remains… what was it?

WTF1190F was picked up by the Catalina Sky Survey earlier in October, and sleuths soon realized it was most likely space-junk related to a lunar mission… but exactly which mission isn’t known, and probably never will be, unless researchers can obtain earlier recovery images of the object and match them up. Orbital elements in the Earth-Moon system get wonderfully chaotic as time goes on. Still, the feat of identifying, tracking, and capturing the atmospheric reentry of an object in such a wide-ranging Earth orbit is a first, and shows that researchers have the ability to do the same and potentially recover a small asteroid under the same circumstances.

The United States, the Soviet Union, Japan, China and India have all carried out Moon missions—both crewed and uncrewed—since the dawn of the Space Age in the late 1950s. Getting to the Moon involves the use of multi-stage booster rockets, and astronomers have mis-identified space junk as NEOs in the past. In 2008, an asteroid also struck the Nubian desert in Sudan which was later recovered, marking the first time a meteorite discovery was also tracked as an asteroid before impact.

The reentry of WT1190F was an awesome catch, though its identity will probably always pose a mystery.


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