NASA asteroid expert Paul Chodas has discovered something very interesting about an asteroid that was expected to get stuck in orbit around the earth next month. It turns out the asteroid is not an asteroid at all. Rather, he thinks it’s an old rocket from a failed moon landing decades ago. That failed mission happened 54 years ago, and the rocket is just now making its way back to earth.
Scientists believe they will be able to identify the rocket linking it to a specific mission in future observations. Chodas speculates that asteroid 2020 SO is the Centar upper rocket stage that propelled NASA’s Surveyor 2 to the moon in 1966. The upper stage rocket was discarded, and the lander itself crashed in the moon when a thruster failed to ignite.
The upper stage rocket was supposed to fly past the moon and wind up in orbit around the sun. The object was discovered by a telescope in Hawaii tasked with looking for asteroids that could harm the earth. Scientists estimate that the object is roughly 26 feet in length based on brightness, which is in the ballpark of the Centaur rocket.
Chodas says what caught his attention is that the object is in a near-circular orbit around the sun, which is unusual for an asteroid. He describes out as flag number one. The object is also in the same plane as the Earth rather than being tilted above or below, which is flag number two. He points out that asteroid typically past the earth at odd angles. He also says that the object is approaching the Earth at 1500 mph, which is slow for an asteroid.
As it gets closer, astronomers will be able to chart its orbit and determine how much it’s pushed by radiation and its thermal effects of the sun. If it is an old rocket, it will move differently than a massive asteroid, which is less susceptible to those outside forces. Chodas notes that there are dozens of objects out there that may not be asteroids, but motions are too imprecise or jumbled to confirm their identity.