Clouds prevented residents of Sri Lanka from spying a 1-meter piece of space junk falling into the Indian Ocean on Friday. Some scientists in the sky got a better view, as the United Arab Emirates sponsored an airborne observing campaign to study the entry of the object, named WT1190F.
The debris intrigued skywatchers because it offered a rare opportunity to plan for and track the return of a piece of debris. About a dozen veteran US, European, and UAE observers of spacecraft re-entries flew aboard a chartered a Gulfstream 450 business jet, affording a view above the clouds and haze.
With more than 20 cameras on board the aircraft, they captured several views of the incoming debris, which likely was part of the spent upper stage of an old rocket. It fell into the ocean about 100km south of Sri Lanka at approximately 06:20 UTC.
Skywatchers hope to better understand how space debris and asteroids burn up in the atmosphere, as it is relatively rare to have the opportunity to prepare for such impacts. The Next TC3 Consortium, led by NASA astronomer Peter Jenniskens, posted some photos of observers inside the reconnaissance aircraft on Friday. A video shows actual photos of the breakup.
The organization used Friday’s innocuous space debris as a trial run of such observations to prepare for when a more dangerous space object shows up. (http://arstechnica.com/)