"Not An Asteroid...": NASA Gives Details Of Object Orbiting Earth

Mystery solved: NASA confirmed the space object that just zipped past Earth is a 1960s rocket booster

Mystery solved: NASA confirmed the space object that just zipped past Earth is a 1960s rocket booster

After analyzing the object's orbit, Center for Near-Earth Object Studies Director Paul Chodas concluded that the object was a rocket booster from NASA's 1966 Surveyor 2 mission to the Moon, according to a news release.

Earlier this year, that long orbit brought it back towards Earth, where it was discovered in September by astronomers who were looking for asteroids.

It probably made its way into space with the 1966's Surveyor 2 mission - which was intended as the second lunar lander to arrive on the Moon, but got lost on the way - and has been floating around since then. By tracing the object's past orbital path backwards, they found it passed so close to Earth in 1966 that it could have believably come from the planet itself. However, on the way to the moon, one of the maneuvering thrusters failed to ignite during a course adjustment, sending the spacecraft tumbling uncontrollably through space. It had been suspected Asteroid 2020 SO was not an asteroid, and NASA observations have now confirmed that. While not immediately a flawless match, Reddy and his team persisted, realizing the discrepancy in spectrum data could be a result of analyzing fresh steel in a lab against steel that would have been exposed to the harsh conditions of space weather for 54 years.

Then, two days ago, serendipity: another Centaur rocket from the same era passed before Reddy's team. "Because of the extreme speed at which Earth-orbiting Centaur boosters travel across the sky, we knew it would be extremely hard to lock on with the IRTF long enough to get a solid and reliable data set".

This photo from 1964 shows a centaur top-level rocket. However, that year an Atlas Centaur rocket launched from Cape Canaveral and took the Moon Lander Surveyor 2 with it.

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The compared the colour spectrum of 2020 SO with 301 stainless steel - the material used to create the Centaur rocket - and found a match.

"This decision is the result of a tremendous team effort", Reddy added. Therefore, it is also important for them to be able to distinguish between natural and artificial objects that orbit around the Sun.

The object formally known as 2020 SO entered a wide, lopsided orbit around Earth last month and, on Tuesday, made its closest approach at just over 31,000 miles (50,476 kilometres).

Astronomers will now continue to study it until it is gone.

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