Plastic bag air

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The mind-boggling emptiness of space: Vast, vacuous expanses that are home to absolutely nothing, save for the sparse occurrence of a giant ball of rock or maybe a huge cloud of noxious gas. The more you think about it, space is objectively one boring place. Yet we still take one look out there and become instantly captivated by the possibilities. Captivated by the intrigue of weird things doing weird things. Especially when something comes around and we have no idea what it could be. Sometimes, these things scare us into finding out more about them; but every so often, something comes around that warrants investigation as a remedy for boredom. Well, as it turns out, one such object turned up recently: it’s weird, especially in regard to how it moves. In fact, it could end up hitting us at any second. Calm down; the thing only weighs about as much as a sack of potatoes, so you’d have to be pretty unlucky if you’re in its way.

Weird space thing found: scientists go crazy

Around a month ago, astronomers published a report detailing an object that had a very irregular orbit. According to the research, the object appears to be several meters in diameter (although the author mentions that this may be inaccurate, as this was determined by how bright the object appears). What’s even more interesting, however, is that the object is very light for its size: weighing in at approximately one kilogram. Multiple theories exist as to what exactly the object is (we’ll be covering a few of the more prominent ones later on), but the only thing we know for sure is that its orbit is truly something bewildering. The object appears to be moving completely unpredictably. Not in fast and jagged motions, but in slow and gradual changes to its direction that can be classified as random.

This object, cryptically referred to as “A10bMLz” (there’s a purpose behind that name, I’m sure), appears to have had a pretty regular orbit until fairly recently (which is why it went under the radar for so long). As the report suggests, this anomaly probably had a run-of-the-mill prograde orbit like everything else: it revolved around the Earth in the same direction as the Earth rotates. At some point or another, it seems as though the object said to itself, “You know what? Screw this, I’m going to do whatever I want.” It then pulled a complete 180 and started rotating in the opposite direction in a retrograde orbit, against the direction of the Earth’s rotation. From that point forward, it seems as though the object made good on its promise. Gradually, it began experiencing gradual changes to its orbit: each one more unpredictable and random than the next. It’s been moving as sporadically as that housefly you tried to chase down with Lysol the other day but in slow motion. Here’s a simulation of the object’s orbit based on the data presented in the report. That green ellipse represents the estimated average orbit, which is likely nowhere near what the actual orbit is going to end up looking like. As you can see, its orbit is already drastically different from the orbits of the planets around it.

What is going on? 

As of right now, scientists believe they know why this is happening. The author of the report gives the name “Empty trash-bag object” to anomalies in space that behave in this way: not because he thinks they’re all garbage, but because it’s analogous to the way an empty plastic bag blows down a highway here on Earth. When an empty plastic bag blows down a highway, its movement is very jagged and irregular. This is because trash bags have a very wide surface area while weighing virtually nothing, essentially making it a detached sail at the mercy of the wind. The same thing is happening to this object in space: because these objects have a wide surface area and a low mass, they are much more susceptible to being pushed about by minor forces throughout space (the main culprit, in this case, is solar radiation). Like the wind pushing a sail, the sun beats on the thin material, slowly ebbing its trajectory in an entirely different direction.

As of right now, there are several theories circulating as to what this thing is. While I’d personally like to discredit the whole “space trashbag” theory and just go with drunk aliens struggling to maintain control of their saucer, the likelihood of that being the case is pretty slim, so it’s probably best if you don’t take my word for it. The most probable theory floating around right now is that the object is likely some detached element of a man-made space machine (otherwise referred to as space debris). A light piece of a satellite, broken off and free-floating into oblivion. It could be anything, really, but the most widely accepted hypothesis is that the object is a large sheet of aluminum foil. It could also be residual debris from a previous rocket launch. Of all the confusion surrounding this thing, one thing we’re pretty sure of is that it’s something man-made. No aliens yet, I’m afraid.

What does it all mean? 

You’re probably thinking, “So what? It’s a piece of trash blowing around in space. Why should I care?” Well, curb your apathy dear reader. As is the case with most of these seemingly useless science studies, the information that surfaces is often more useful than it sounds.

This may mean that we’ll be able to traverse space with crafts that do not require a constant fuel source. How? Think sailboats, but in space. The movement would be slow as molasses, but it would be movement nonetheless. Solar sails for things such as small satellites are already being pioneered by prominent science figures such as Bill Nye. Perhaps one day, we could harness the power of the sun to explore that vast, boring nothingness out there. Just kidding, we’ll probably find something cool eventually.