End-of-the-world fears on Friday the 13th, November seen by scientists as opportunity to observe space junk enter Earth

By @vitthernandez on
Space Debris
Residents show a piece of debris from the heat shield of an Indian Ariane VA221 launcher on Areoa beach in the city of Curuca, Brazil, May 19, 2015. The piece, along with other pieces, was found by a local man in a swamp near the beach and was identified by Deviprasad Karnik, the director of the Public Relations Unit of Indian Space Research Organisation as a piece of an Ariane VA221 launcher used to carry a GSAT-16 communication satellite. Karnik also said that Indian satellite launchers do not reach the north of Brazil. Picture taken on May 19, 2015. Reuters/Tarso Sarraf

Because of the proximity of a known space debris crash on Earth on Nov 13, doomsday forecasters have further fuelled the fire by citing that the day is the “dreaded” Friday the 13th. The unknown object, believed to be junk from the past Apollo mission, will enter the planet just past 6 am.

The space junk, WT1190F,  is expected to crash into the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Sri Lanka. The 7-foot long object was spotted by astronomers in February 2013, disappeared and reappeared this month, notes India.com.

However, rather than instill fear in people due to superstitious beliefs, WT1190F is an opportunity for scientists to better learn and make more accurate prediction of the return of space objects. In line with that objective, an observation campaign has been rolled out to follow the debris until it reaches Earth, says Gerhard Drolshagen, co-manager of the European Space Agency’s near-Earth objects office in Noordwijk, The Netherlands.

Besides giving the scientific community an opportunity to monitor the plunge of space debris into Earth, it also tests the plans put in place by astronomers to coordinate their efforts “when a potentially dangerous space object shows up,” notes Scientific American.

The object was first detected by the University of Arizona-based Catalina Sky Survey programme, which aims to discover asteroids and comets flying near our planet. Scientists computed the debris' trajectory after they collected further observations and dug up 2012 and 2013 sightings from telescope archives, says Bill Gray, independent astronomy software developer who also tracks the debris with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory astronomers in Pasadena, California.

The debris travelled a very elliptical orbit and swung twice as far as the distance between the Earth and Moon. Gray estimates that WT1190F will land 65 kilometres off Sri Lanka’s southern tip.

According to Nature, the space junk is just one of 20 artificial objects in distant orbits that scientists are tracking, says Gareth Williams, astronomer at the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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