Mystery of asteroid 2013 QW1 solved – it’s space junk!

Artificial object 2013 QW1 masquerades as an asteroid. Copyright: TNG/Telescopio Nazionale Galileo

On August 23 the Pan-STARRS comet and asteroid survey nabbed a speedy new object circling around planet Earth – not the sun. Excuse me. Don’t all asteroids orbit the sun? That’s why this one stuck out like a sore thumb. Provisionally named 2013 QW1, the discoverers wondered whether it might instead be an artificial object. If you’re thinking alien spaceship, probably not, but maybe a human-built one.

Soon the European Space Agency’s Near Earth Object (NEO) Coordination Center sent out an alert requesting more observations of 2013 QW1 to nail down its identity. Italian and French astronomers took up the challenge. Using the large Italian Telescopio Nazionale Galileo on the island of La Palma, the teams focused a spectrograph on the fast-moving object and “fingerprinted” the light it reflected from the sun. What they found didn’t resemble a rock at all but bore the signature of previously observed space junk. We’re talking discarded rocket stages, abandoned boosters and defunct satellites.

Apollo 12 on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center. The mission lifted off on November 14, 1969. The third stage never made lunar impact and was discovered orbiting Earth 33 years later. Credit: NASA

2013 QW1 turned out to be man-made, most likely a booster stage that helped launch a satellite or space probe into orbit. It was quickly stripped of its asteroid designation, renamed 2010-050B and entered into the Distant Artificial Satellite Observations list. Expert satellite observers can go HERE to get positions and brightnesses of a number of the objects on the list including 2010-50B.

In case you’re wondering about the current whereabouts of our former asteroid, it’s cruising along near Antares in Scorpius and very faint at 17th magnitude.

2013 QW1 wasn’t the first piece of orbital debris to be confused with an asteroid. NASA typically sent the upper stages of the Saturn V rockets – the ones that shot the Apollo craft to the moon – crashing into the moon’s surface to create artificial moonquakes. Seismographs brought there by the astronauts picked up vibrations from the impacts that were used to study the moon’s interior structure.

On April 14th 1970, the Apollo 13 Saturn IVB upper stage impacted the moon and made this crater which is roughly 98-feet (30 meters) in diameter. Photo taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

The 3rd stage (S-IVB upper stage) of Apollo 12 failed to crash and instead took up an orbit alternately dominated by the sun and Earth. On September 3, 2002 an object with the temporary name of J002E3 was discovered rapidly circling the Earth at twice the distance of the moon. Light reflected from its surface revealed telltale signs of titanium-enriched white paint used at that time for the Apollo rockets. It didn’t take long for astronomers to realize they’d finally found Apollo 12’s long-lost upper stage.

Like trick or treats on Halloween, you never know what you might find in the bottom of your bag when you go asteroid hunting.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

17 thoughts on “Mystery of asteroid 2013 QW1 solved – it’s space junk!

  1. Checking my old star atlas, it looks like Encke is going to be a bit interesting this week. Around September 25 it is around 4 degrees north of 37 Auriga, which is a 2.7 magnitude star. A day or so later it passes about 1 degree north of comet N1 Jager which is periodic comet 290. While Encke is in the magnitude 10 range. Jager is in the magnitude 14-15 range.

  2. Hi Bob
    Very interesting blog tonight, and just goes to show how quickly mistakes are made and quickly rectified.
    On the subject of asteroid’s I was watching a video from March this year on Dr Holdren and Charles Bolden testifying before congress on earth threatening asteroid’s, which was very interesting and a few things I didn’t know before but it was a very long video, but I wanted to ask you that the headline for this video came up on google, but not the one I watched, and it said ‘Asteroid threatens earth in 2014, but I watched the whole video and it doesn’t say anything about an asteroid in 2014, so do you think that the person has just added this headline to draw attention to it as I can’t find anything that was said before congress, also on the video on youtube someone left a comment to do with the 2014, that there is an asteroid coming on March 17 2014 and it was discovered on Jan 2011 by Tucson AZ observatory and it is named 2011 AZ5, I have looked this up on Jpl but it only gives you close approach from 12 Oct 2007, so is this real or do you know if this asteroid is either close approach data as March 2014 or impact risk as that date as I can’t find anything about it and it’s supposed to be huge, but this all might be baloney the same as the YouTube video headline. Thanks Bob and sorry it’s a bit long. :-)

    • Lynn,
      This asteroid doesn’t exist. It’s completely made up although it usually goes by the name 2014 AZ5. Someone must have wised up and changed the date to 2011 since it’s impossible for an asteroid to be named a future date.

      • My guess is that 2014 AZ5 is a play on the name of asteroid 2011 AG5 that use to pose a small chance of impact in 2040. Thanks to a larger observation arc, it is now known that on 4 February 2040 asteroid 2011 AG5 will pass no closer than 0.006 AU (900,000 km; 560,000 mi) from Earth.

  3. Thanks Bob, I would never have guessed that someone had done that, also I said to you that I had watched the real YouTube video that was about the earth threatening asteroid’s and it never said about any in particular, but that other person made a YouTube video with the heading about an asteroid threat in 2014, so is that not true either as there is no mention of 2014 in that video, so is that made up to, because this guy has used that heading and someone left a comment about that AZ5

  4. Sorry Bob I clicked the publish button, I meant to finish off with that someone just left a comment about AZ5 and you have said that isn’t true, so it’s about the heading of the YouTube video about an asteroid in 2014, as Bolden etc doesn’t say about any in 2014, sorry if it’s a bit confusing, and maybe what your telling me is that the YouTube heading is just all about the 2014 so called asteroid. Thanks Bob :-)

  5. It looks to me as ISON and Lovejoy are performing better than expected. I would put them brighter than magnitude 9 from mid October into early February. Encke should be near magnitude 9 in early October and may be the brightest comet till mid November.

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