Researchers have been keeping tabs on a mysterious piece of space debris since first spotting it in October. On Friday, they were able to catch it on video as it hurtled through the Earth's atmosphere.
In anticipation of its re-entry, the International Astronomical Center and the United Arab Emirates Space Agency organized an observation campaign to record the object, named WT1190F. The footage clearly shows the debris burning up the atmosphere, but at one point the scientists who captured it were afraid they'd see nothing at all. They flew 45,000 feet above the Indian Ocean by plane for a closer look at the space junk, but rainy conditions resulted in a hazy view for most of the flight. Luckily, they were able to reach a small clearing just in time for the fiery event.
The origins of WT1190F, appropriately nicknamed “WTF,” still remain a mystery. The object was estimated at 1 to 2 meters across and was likely hollow, which points to it being a spent second stage of a rocket. Which rocket it belonged to, though, is anyone’s guess.
WT1190F disintegrated harmlessly off the Sri Lankan coast, but other pieces of debris could prove to be more problematic in the future. Space agencies around the world closely monitor the space junk floating above the planet—not necessarily because of the threat the objects pose to humans on Earth, but because of the damage they could cause to other spacecraft in orbit.