Mini-moon or space junk? Mystery object joining Earth's orbit could be missing booster rocket from 1960s
The rocket was a part of the Surveyor 2 mission. The spacecraft was launched on September 20, 1966, but failed to soft-land on the Moon, and the rocket disappeared
A mysterious object is headed towards Earth and is likely to enter the orbit, becoming a mini-moon. But it is not your usual asteroid or space rock. Instead, it could be space junk, designed by humans, predict scientists.
The object could be a rocket booster of the 1960s that is making its way back to Earth. "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 from the Sun at its farthest point," Dr Paul Chodas, the director of NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies, told CNN.
"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."
Asteroid 2020 SO may get captured by Earth from Oct 2020 - May 2021. Current nominal trajectory shows shows capture through L2, and escape through L1. Highly-chaotic path, so be prepared for lots of revisions as new observations come in. @renerpho @nrco0e https://t.co/h4JaG2rHEd pic.twitter.com/RfUaeLtEWq— Tony Dunn (@tony873004) September 20, 2020
According to Chodas, the booster rocket was a part of the Surveyor 2 mission. The spacecraft was launched on September 20, 1966, but failed to soft-land on the moon because one of the thrusters failed to ignite. As a result, the rocket passed by the Moon and went into orbit near the Sun. Experts did not know about its whereabouts until now, he told CNN.
Catching sight of the approaching object was the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) observatory in Hawai. It is tasked with scanning the skies to spot Near-Earth objects that could threaten Earth and also to discover new comets.
Scientists will be able to learn more about the object's identity in the coming days by looking at how the Sun affects it. "We should start being able to detect the effect of sunlight pressure has on the motion of this object: If it really is a rocket body, it will be much less dense than an asteroid and the slight pressure due to sunlight will produce enough change in its motion that we should be able to detect it in the tracking data," Chodas explained.
"You have to keep tracking these things, or you can just sort of losing sight of them really easily," Alice Gorman, a space archaeologist at Flinders University in Australia, told ScienceAlert. "And if they do something a little bit unpredictable, and you look the wrong way, then you don't know where it's gone. It is quite astonishing, the number of things that have gone missing."
While scientists continue to investigate the identity of the mysterious object, the International Space Station (ISS) avoided a collision with unidentified space junk. The ISS executed an "avoidance maneuver" to avoid getting hit. "The @Space_Station has maneuvered 3 times in 2020 to avoid debris. In the last 2 weeks, there have been 3 high concern potential conjunctions. Debris is getting worse! Time for Congress to provide @CommerceGov with the $15 mil requested by @POTUS for the Office of Space Commerce," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted.