With the newly discovered space object known as WT1190F getting closer and closer to the Earth, scientists from different parts of the world are scrambling to study the mysterious piece of debris before it makes its anticipated plunge into the Indian Ocean on Nov. 13.
Experts believe the still unidentified debris, which remained largely ignored during its orbit of the Earth's moon before being spotted by a telescope earlier this month, will provide them with the first opportunity to accurately predict the impact of a space object on Earth.
Gerhard Drolshagen, co-manager of the near-Earth objects division of the European Space Agency (ESA), said that an observation program has been launched to monitor the WT1190F object as it enters the atmosphere of the Earth.
Aside from giving them valuable data during its atmospheric entry, the Nov. 13 event also allows ESA astronomers to test contingency plans in such cases when potentially dangerous objects from space appear.
"What we planned to do seems to work," Drolshagen said, referring to plans for the WT1190F object's entry. "But it's still three weeks to go."
Scientists first detected the space object through a University of Arizona, Tucson study called the Catalina Sky Survey. The project's goal is to discover comets and asteroid that transit within the vicinity of the Earth.
Observers initially had difficulty in studying the WT1190F object but, according to Bill Gray, a developer of astronomy-related software who has been collaborating with NASA, astronomers were eventually able to compute its trajectory through telescope archives of earlier sightings in 2012 and 2013.
Gray said that the space object's elliptical orbit swings out at a distance twice as far as that of the Earth and the moon. Analyses of its movement show that the WT1190F object will plunge into the Indian Ocean near Sri Lanka.
The WT1190F object measures around one to two meters (between 3.3 and 6.7 feet), but experts predict a large portion of the space debris will likely burn up when it enters the Earth's atmosphere.
Astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said the WT1190F's low density and hollow appearance suggest the piece of debris could be a manmade object sent into space in the past.
Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center | Flickr