Science

Object spotted in September comes within 31,000 miles of Earth and may be a piece of a 1966 rocket

Has NASA’s rocket come home? Object first spotted in September comes within 31,000 miles of Earth and is suspected to be a piece from the 1966 Surveyor 2

  • Object 2020 SO was spotted on a trajectory towards Earth on September 17 
  • Some astronomers said it was an asteroid, but more research needed to be done 
  • Others noticed its curvy orbit, which suggested it may not be a natural asteroid
  • Many now say it is a discarded piece of NASA’s 1966 Surveyor 2 rocket
  • The object just passed by Earth within some 31,00 miles around 3:50am ET Tues 
  • Scientists will use the data and images  from the flyby to help confirm

Scientists may soon solve the mystery of 2020 SO – an object discovered in September that could be NASA‘s discarded 1966 Surveyor 2 Centaur rocket returning home or just an asteroid.

Around 3:50am ET Tuesday, 2020 SO came within 31,605 miles of Earth, allowing astronomers to gather images and data of the mysterious object.

It was first discovered by the Pan-STARRS survey in Hawaii on September 17 and announced two days later by the Minor Planet Center.

Astronomers original thought 2020 SO was an incoming asteroid, but details of its size appear to match the properties of the 1966 Centaur that measures 41.6 feet long – the object is said to be between 12 and 46 feet long.

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Around 3:50am ET Tuesday, 2020 SO came within 31,605 miles of Earth, allowing astronomers to gather images and data of the mysterious object. The top image shows 2020 SO as a streak of light across the sky

Pan-STARRS spotted the object on the evening of September 17 that was following a slight, but distinctly curved path in the sky, which led them to believe it was an asteroid.

Another team in California, the NASA-funded Center for Near-Earth Objects (CNEOS), saw the same object, but thought something was off because of its orbit.

CNEOS Paul Chodas is one of those who is suspicious of the discover and decided to ‘turn back the clock’ to see the object’s orbit backwards with the hopes of uncovering where it had been before making its way into Earth’s gravity.

Chodas found that 2020 SO had come somewhat close to Earth a few times over the decades, but its approach in late 1966, according to his analysis, would have been close enough that it may have originated from Earth.

Astronomers original thought 2020 SO was an incoming asteroid, but details of its size appear to match the properties of the 1966 Centaur that measures 41.6 feet long – the object is said to be between 12 and 46 feet long. Pictured is the rocket before it launched to the moon

Astronomers original thought 2020 SO was an incoming asteroid, but details of its size appear to match the properties of the 1966 Centaur that measures 41.6 feet long – the object is said to be between 12 and 46 feet long. Pictured is the rocket before it launched to the moon

‘One of the possible paths for 2020 SO brought the object very close to Earth and the Moon in late September 1966,’ said Chodas.

‘It was like a eureka moment when a quick check of launch dates for lunar missions showed a match with the Surveyor 2 mission.’

NASA’s JPL said it would use spectroscopy when 2020 SO made its closest approach this morning, which would confirm exactly what it is.

2020 SO is currently stuck in Earth’s gravity and orbiting the planet.

Chodas told The New York Times that it will escape from our planet’s grips by March 2021 and embark on its journey around the sun once again.

However, he also notes that ‘in 2036, it’s coming back,’ giving scientists another chance at probing 2020 SO.

2020 SO is currently stuck in Earth's gravity and orbiting the planet, but it will escape from our planet's grips by March 2021 and embark on its journey around the sun once again

2020 SO is currently stuck in Earth’s gravity and orbiting the planet, but it will escape from our planet’s grips by March 2021 and embark on its journey around the sun once again

The Surveyor 2 lunar lander was launched toward the Moon on September 20, 1966 aboard an Atlas-Centaur rocket.

The mission was tasked with reconnoitering the lunar surface ahead of the Apollo missions, which led to the first crewed lunar landing in 1969.

Shortly after lift-off, Surveyor 2 successfully separated from its Centaur upper-stage booster as intended. 

But control of the spacecraft was lost a day later when one of its thrusters failed to ignite, throwing the craft into a spin.

The spacecraft crashed into the Moon just southeast of Copernicus crater on September 23, 1966. 

The spent Centaur upper-stage rocket sailed past the Moon and disappeared into an unknown orbit about the Sun.

But, NASA and other astronomers may find that it has come home for a brief visit.

SURVEYOR 2: THE ILL-FATED LUNAR LANDER THAT LOST ITS WAY 

Surveyor 2 was supposed to be the second lunar lander launched by NASA as part of the American Surveyor program to explore the Moon. 

It was launched in September 1966 from Cape Kennedy in Florida aboard an Atlas-Centaur rocket.

1966 was a busy year for lunar missions – USSR spaceship Luna 9 became the first to achieve a soft landing on the Moon and send photos.

In May Surveyor 1 became the first US spaceship to land and send photos.

Then in September Surveyor 2 was due to do the same thing – but from a different site – but it crash landed.

Surveyor 2 suffered a mid-course correction failure that resulted in the spaceship loosing control.

Contact was lost on September 22, two days after it was first launched.

During the mid-course correction maneuver thruster failed to ignite – causing it to become unbalanced and tumble for 54 hours.

It crashed near Copernicus crater on the lunar surface on September 23 – three days after launch.

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