ESA to study rare rocket body reentry to improve predictive models
ESA astronomers will be looking to the skies on November 13, when a piece of debris – thought to be part of an old rocket – plummets back to Earth. The agency believes that by studying the reentry, it'll be able to gather useful data that could lead to more accurate predictions of how objects interact with our atmosphere.
The object in question, known as WT1190F, was discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey back in 2013. Since then it's been observed several times, and found to have an eccentric orbit, travelling around the Earth once every three weeks.
Experts at the ESA's NEO Coordination Center (NEOCC) in Italy confirmed that it's likely part of an old rocket, with observations revealing that it's far less dense than the solid rocky matter you'd expect of an asteroid. It's thought to be hollow, and is likely the spent upper stage of a rocket body.
WT1190F is visible in the center of this image, as observed by the University of Hawaii 2.2-metre telescope on October 9, 2015
So what's the point of watching the debris fall back to Earth? Well, while the object is man-made, its orbit is similar to near-Earth objects (NEO) like asteroids. ESA believes that by training ground-based assets on the object, it'll gather data that will help it improve reentry prediction models, making it easier to accurately observe NEOs such as asteroids.
It's forecast for reentry into Earth's atmosphere at around 06:19 GMT, touching down some 100 km (62 miles) off the coast of Sri Lanka. The object is thought to be only a couple of meters in diameter, and doesn't pose any threat to the area, but it should be a pretty spectacular sight, burning bright in the light sky for a few seconds as it falls. Of course, that's just what it'll be doing – burning up, with most, if not all, of the object not making it to the surface.
"It provides an ideal opportunity to test our readiness for possible future atmospheric entry events involving an asteroid, since the components of this scenario, from discovery to impact, are all very similar," says NEOCC astronomer Marco Micheli.