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A rocket booster from the 1960s may have come back to haunt us

Published Sep 23rd, 2020 11:26PM EDT
mini moon asteroid
Image: Reid Wiseman/NASA

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  • Astronomers have spotted what appears to be an asteroid headed for Earth orbit.
  • If the object is indeed an asteroid and inserts itself into Earth orbit, it would be considered a “mini-moon,” but not everyone is convinced.
  • Some scientists, including members of NASA, believe the “asteroid” is really just an old rocket booster that has come back to Earth.

Everyone knows Earth has just one true Moon. You can see it most nights if you happen to have clear skies above your head, and it usually looks pretty neat. However, there are tons of smaller natural objects orbiting Earth that aren’t big enough to be considered moons but are hanging around anyway. They’re sometimes referred to as mini-moons, and a new one is headed our way. That is unless it’s just a piece of space trash.

The object, which has been given the designation Asteroid 2020 SO, is expected to enter orbit around Earth as it passes with 27,000 miles of our planets. Unfortunately, there’s a pretty good chance that it’s not an asteroid at all, but rather a piece of old rocket technology that is coming back to haunt us.

Mankind has fired a lot of stuff into space, and a lot of it is still there. Old satellites, fairings, and entire rocket boosters are still floating around either in Earth’s orbit or somewhere nearby. Sometimes the junk we shoot into space disappears for a time only to come back, and that could be what is happening with Asteroid 2020 SO.

“I suspect this newly discovered object 2020 SO to be an old rocket booster because it is following an orbit about the Sun that is extremely similar to Earth’s, nearly circular, in the same plane, and only slightly farther away the Sun at its farthest point,” Dr. Paul Chodas of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies told CNN in an interview. “That’s precisely the kind of orbit that a rocket stage separated from a lunar mission would follow, once it passes by the Moon and escapes into orbit about the Sun. It’s unlikely that an asteroid could have evolved into an orbit like this, but not impossible.”

So how old is the rocket stage? It’s likely from the 1960s, Chodas believes. More specifically, based on the analysis of past lunar mission launches, he believes it to be a booster that was shot into space in 1966. The mission was supposed to send a lander, the Surveyor 2, to the lunar surface, but it crashed instead. Now, it seems, its booster is back to remind NASA of the misstep.

We won’t know for sure what the object is until it gets closer to Earth. That’ll happen by late November, and at that point, we’ll know whether it’s an actual asteroid or just another piece of space debris that is constantly piling up around our planet.