/ Modified nov 12, 2015 9:47 a.m.

Arizona Astronomers Track Piece Of Falling Space Junk

Refuse from space mission will make fiery descent over the Indian Ocean Thursday

Space junk spot Computer generated image of objects in Earth orbit. Approximately 95 percent of the objects in this illustration are orbital debris (i.e., not functional satellites).
NASA

By Melissa Sevigny, Arizona Science Desk

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A piece of space junk will fall to Earth over the Indian Ocean late Thursday night. Arizona astronomers discovered the object and plan to track its fiery descent.

Millions of tiny bits of trash orbit the Earth, left over from space missions dating back to the Apollo Age. One such piece is about to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere and — for the first time — astronomers have been able to predict when and where that will happen.

Eric Christensen leads the Catalina Sky Survey in Tucson, which discovered the object last month. He said the survey searches for comets and asteroids, and usually doesn’t find fast-moving space junk.

“So it takes a very unusual object and an unusual orbit like this one for us to even be sensitive to it,” he said.

Astronomer Nick Moskovitz of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff is tracking the object. He said it’s a unique opportunity to observe a celestial impact.

“This is a great test case to try out all of those capabilities to make sure we can do this well,” Moskovitz said.

The data could help future efforts to detect and understand hazardous objects, like asteroids. This piece of space junk poses no threat. Moskovitz said it will create a fireball as bright as the moon for viewers near Sri Lanka.

The Arizona Science Desk is a collaboration of public broadcasting entities in the state, including Arizona Public Media.

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