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WT1190F breakup
An image captured from a chartered Gulfstream 450 business jet shows the fiery breakup of the space object known as WT1190F. (Credit: IAC via YouTube)

Scientists flying on an instrument-laden jet captured great video views of a mysterious space object known as WT1190F as it streaked through the air and burned up over the Indian Ocean today.

The pictures were put on the Web just hours after the object, which is thought to have been debris from a rocket or spacecraft, re-entered Earth’s atmosphere at 06:18 GMT today (10:18 p.m. PT Thursday).

WT1190F was discovered by astronomers with the Catalina Sky Survey just last month, but an analysis of archived telescope data revealed that the object had been tracing a highly elliptical Earth orbit for years, ranging up to twice as far away as the moon.

The analysis also showed that the object was relatively lightweight, and measured about 6 feet (2 meters) in length. That’s what led experts on orbital debris to conclude that it was a piece of space junk.

There are thousands of bits of space junk orbiting our planet, but what’s remarkable about WT1190F is that its atmospheric re-entry could be calculated so precisely in advance. The pictures and data captured from a Gulfstream jet flying out of Abu Dhabi provides the evidence that scientists nailed it.

The aerial observation campaign was coordinated by the Abu Dhabi-based International Astronomical Center and the United Arab Emirates Space Agency, with participation by researchers from the European Space Agency, NASA, the SETI Institute and the Clay Center Observatory.

The data collected could provide further insights into the nature and origins of WT1190F, but in any case, the flight served as a fantastic practice run for monitoring incoming asteroids.

“The manner in which asteroids break up during entry is key to understanding what happens if another asteroid hits like the one that shattered near the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in February of 2013,” the SETI Institute’s Peter Jenniskens said in a news release issued before WT1190F’s breakup. “The shock wave of that detonation smashed windows and sent over 1,600 people to the hospital for treatment of injuries from flying glass.”

The views from the Gulfstream may well serve as the only ones documenting WT1190F’s fall. Observers in Sri Lanka, the closest piece of land to the descent zone, said they didn’t see anything. The good news is that no one was harmed on the ground … this time.

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