A well-traveled chunk of space debris plunged to Earth off Sri Lanka early in the morning of 13 November, maknig brilliant trails through the sky captured by the cameras of airborne scientists.
A team of researchers from the United States, Germany and the United Arab Emirates saw the re-entry from aboard an aeroplane, according to a tweet from the International Astronomical Center in Abu Dhabi, which coordinated the flight.
B. Bolin, R. Jedicke, M. Micheli
“It is our pleasure to announce the success of the #WT1190F UAE Airborne Campaign,” the centre wrote. “We saw and captured the reentry.”
The piece of debris, designated WT1190F, made its dive to Earth at roughly 6:18 a.m. GMT and was expected to disintegrate over the Indian Ocean south of Sri Lanka.
The event was a washout on the ground. A team that journeyed from France to monitor the re-entry from the Sri Lankan town of Ambalangoda was foiled by clouds and rain, said team member Auriane Egal of the Paris Observatory. Sri Lankan observers at several other locations were also clouded out.
Estimated to measure 1-2 metres across, WT1190F had circled the Earth-Moon system since at least 2009, says independent astronomy-software developer Bill Gray, who has been working with NASA to track the debris. It most likely came off a recent lunar spacecraft, but it is not out of the question that it could have dated to the Apollo era.
IAC/UAE Space Agency/NASA/ESA
Ahead of the impact, researchers from the United States, Germany and the United Arab Emirates transformed a chartered executive jet into an observing platform outfitted with 20 cameras. The jet was slated to monitor the re-entry at an altitude of 12,000 metres from a distance of 100 to 200 kilometres.
Researchers hoped to gather spectroscopic data to reveal the chemical composition of the object, which could help identity it. Any images of the breakup will provide clues about its structure and mechanical properties. Such information could prove useful for analysis of asteroids that target Earth.
But the jet’s orientation had to be just right, which researchers preparing for the flight regarded as a challenge. “We’re working with commercial pilots who’ve never done this before, so it will be very interesting to see how this comes together,” said NASA astronomer Peter Jenniskens before the flight.