Mysterious Space Debris on Collision Course With Earth

A meteor burns up in the atmosphere over Bolivia in August 2011. On November 13, a piece of old space debris is expected to mostly burn up upon re-entering the atmosphere south of Sri Lanka. REUTERS

A hunk of space junk is headed for Earth and will plunge into our planet in about two and a half weeks. Right now, scientists predict it will crash-land on Friday the 13th (of November). Technically known as WT1190F, scientists have nicknamed it WTF—as in "WTF is this?"

The space debris was first spotted in 2013 by the Catalina Sky Survey, a program at the University of Arizona geared toward finding asteroids orbiting close to Earth, according to Nature. It's a rare example of a piece of identified debris that has a far-flung orbit, in an elliptical path that takes it twice the distance of the moon from the Earth and then back again. Most space junk orbits Earth at a lower orbit and burns up in the atmosphere without fanfare.

At first, it wasn't clear what the object was. But researchers now think that it is man-made, because telescope observations have suggested it's much less dense than typical asteroids, Detlef Koschny of the European Space Agency (ESA) said in a statement. "This density is in fact compatible with the object being a hollow shell, such as the spent upper stage of a rocket body," and perhaps dates back many decades to the Apollo era of the 1960s and early 1970s, he said.

By tracking the debris' path, scientists can estimate rather precisely when and where it will come down. They think touchdown will be at 2:20 a.m. ET on November 13 in the Indian Ocean, south of Sri Lanka. Much if not all of it is expected to burn up in the atmosphere.

Scientists are excited about its approach and descent, which will be tracked by telescopes and will "help improve orbital models and re-entry prediction tools and can be used by scientists studying near-Earth objects such as natural asteroids, or the orbital decay of artificial objects such as satellites," according to the ESA.

As the debris burns up in the atmosphere, it will offer quite a show to people in Sri Lanka and India, who should be able to see it as a bright streak of light for several minutes, according to Nature.