WT1190F space junk

WT1190F, a piece of space junk poised to fall to Earth early tomorrow morning, was first detected on Oct. 3 by the Catalina Sky Survey, a project based at the University of Arizona that searches the sky for potentially hazardous asteroids. (Catalina Sky Survey)

A hunk of space junk is expected to fall to Earth in a spectacular light show near Sri Lanka tomorrow morning — Friday the 13th.

The prediction has prompted the Sri Lankan government to impose a temporary no-fly zone and a fishing ban as a precaution.

The orbiting object, named WT1190F and thought to be a discarded rocket body, is expected to re-enter the atmosphere at around 1:19 a.m. ET Friday or 11:49 a.m. local time.

It appears to be hollow and "at most a couple of metres in diameter," according to the European Space Agency's Near Earth Object Coordination Centre, which has been studying it.

"Its mass is not sufficient to cause any risk to the area, but the show will still be spectacular, since for a few seconds the object will become quite bright in the midday sky," ESA said in a news release.

WT1190F landing area

Most of the object was expected to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. Any that remained was predicted to fall into the Indian Ocean about 65 to 100 kilometres off Sri Lanka's south coast. (Project Pluto)

Most of the object is expected to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. Any that remains is predicted to fall into the Indian Ocean about 65 to 100 kilometres off the Sri Lanka's south coast.

"We don't know what it is so we don't know its shape and how it's going to fragment. A piece of a solar panel, for instance, would behave differently than a booster tank," said Nick Moskovitz, an astronomer at the Lowell Observatory, in a news release. "There is certainly the possibility that pieces could make it to the ground, though I think it's unlikely."

The Sri Lanka Ministry of Defence issued a statement earlier this week saying that:

  • The country's chief air controller will observe a no-fly zone above the southern sea area Friday.
  • The Fisheries Department has alerted regional authorities about a fishing ban in the predicted landing area.

Orbiting since at least 2009

According to NASA, as of 2013, there were more than 500,000 pieces of space junk orbiting the Earth  including 20,000 hunks larger than a softball. They travel at an average of 28,000 km/h, and include non-functional spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle stages, mission-related debris and smaller pieces produced by the breakup of larger objects.

The object  WT1190F was first detected on Oct. 3 by the Catalina Sky Survey, a project based at the University of Arizona that searches the sky for potentially hazardous asteroids. Researchers later realized that the object, which has a very elliptical orbit, had appeared in images as far back as 2009.

According to Bill Gray at Project Pluto, an astronomical software maker, computer simulations of its orbit suggest it most likely has been in orbit for a decade or less.

Calendar for September 2016

The object has a very elliptical orbit around the Earth, depicted as a small red circle. The green circle is the orbit of the moon. (Project Pluto)

The space junk's re-entry is being studied using telescopes by scientists around the world. They hope it will help them understand how other objects with this kind of orbit re-enter the Earth. 

Despite the no-fly zone, Peter Jenniskens, a research scientist at the SETI Institute in California, is even looking into the possibility of chartering a plane to get a close look, the Lowell Observatory says.

Slooh, an organization that streams celestial events online from telescopes around the world, expects to release images of the object during a broadcast featuring a discussion with astronomers about space junk.