No, a UFO named WTF is not threatening to destroy Earth

Let's start with the facts: Yes, there's something hurtling through space in our direction. Yes, it's going to enter the Earth's atmosphere and possibly land in the Indian Ocean next month. No, scientists don't know quite what it is. And, no, that doesn't make it a UFO.

The European Space Agency released information last week about an object spotted streaking through space and heading toward Earth. Headlines are zeroing in on the chance of impact and the unidentified object's comically apropos nickname. Officially named WT1190F, the object's catalog number has been popularly shortened to "WTF."

But ESA scientists have a pretty good idea of what it could be -- probably a remnant from a past mission, like the hollow shell of part of a spent rocket -- and they're confident that it's unlikely to be a threat.

"The expected 13 November reentry of what is likely to be a rocket body poses very little risk to anyone," they wrote on the ESA blog Thursday.

"The object is quite small, at most a couple of meters in diameter, and a significant fraction if not all of it can be expected to completely burn up in the atmosphere," said Tim Flohrer, from ESA's Space Debris Office in Darmstadt, Germany.

Whatever remains of the space junk after the fiery reentry is expected to fall into the Indian Ocean, about 60 miles off the southern coast of Sri Lanka, on Nov. 13.

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Space object WT1190F observed on 9 October 2015 with the University of Hawaii 2.2-metre telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

B. Bolin, R. Jedicke, M. Micheli

"If anything makes it down to the surface...it would be very small, so the odds of anybody getting hurt are very remote," CBS News Space Correspondent Bill Harwood said. "The thing that this always brings to mind is, all satellites and rocket bodies (re)enter on a fairly regular basis so it's not at all unusual."

"The good news is that three-quarters of the world is ocean, so the odds are that it's going to land somewhere in the ocean and the ocean is a big place," he added. "Statistically I think there's no point in worrying about this one."

WT1190F was first discovered in 2013 by the Catalina Sky Survey, which identifies near-Earth objects in space. It has been observed several times since then by the same team.

Scientists hope to use observations to better understand how objects -- "man-made or natural" -- behave upon entry into Earth's atmosphere.

Marco Micheli, an astronomer at ESA's Near-Earth Object Coordination Centre, said, "The first goal will be to better understand the reentry of satellites and debris from highly eccentric orbits."

"Second, it provides an ideal opportunity to test our readiness for any possible future atmospheric entry events involving an asteroid, since the components of this scenario, from discovery to impact, are all very similar."

Harwood explained that watching WT1190F could help scientists understand "what exactly happens when something comes into the atmosphere at extremely high speed and breaks apart: Where in the altitude does the break up start? How much debris reaches the surface?"

He also thinks it would be particularly interesting if scientists could identify the object, which could potentially be a piece of equipment left over from the Apollo missions.

  • Amanda Schupak

    Amanda Schupak is the science and technology editor at CBSNews.com