It appears that a newly discovered space object is an old rocket from a failed landing mission 54 years ago on the surface of the moon, which has finally begun to return home, according to the leading asteroid expert at NASA.
“I’m very surprised by this,” Paul Chodas told the Associated Press. Chodas speculates that the asteroid 2020 SO, as it is officially known, is actually the overhead stage of the Centaur missile, which successfully propelled NASA’s Surveyor 2 lander to the moon in 1966.
The lander ended up colliding with the moon after one of its batches failed to ignite on the way there. Meanwhile, the rocket passed the moon and orbited the sun, never to be seen again – until now.
Last month, a telescope in Hawaii discovered the mysterious object while conducting research aimed at protecting our planet from doomsday rocks. The object was immediately added to the tally of asteroids and comets found in our solar system, of the International Astronomical Union.
What caught Chodas’ attention is that its near-circular orbit around the sun is very similar to Earth’s – which is unusual for an asteroid.
The object is also at ground level itself, not tilted up or down, said Chodas, director of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. Usually, asteroids move at strange angles. Finally, it is approaching Earth at 1,500 miles per hour (2,400 km per hour), slowly by the standards of asteroids.
As the object approaches, astronomers should be able to better plan its orbit, and determine how much it is being pushed by the radiation and thermal effects of sunlight.
This is how astronomers usually distinguish between asteroids and space junk, such as missing rocket fragments, both of which appear as moving points in the sky. There are likely dozens of fake asteroids, Chodas said, but their motions are very imprecise or mixed to confirm their artificial identity.
A mysterious object was identified in 1991, for example, by Chodas and others as an ordinary asteroid rather than a wreck, even though its orbit around the Sun is similar to the Earth’s orbit.
Even more exciting is that Chodas in 2002 found what is believed to be the third stage of Saturn V remaining from Apollo 12 in 1969, the second landing on the moon by NASA astronauts. He admits that the evidence was circumstantial, given the body’s year-long orbit around the Earth. It was not classified as an asteroid, and it left Earth’s orbit in 2003.
Asteroid hunter Cary Nugent of Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts, said Chodas’ conclusion is “good” based on strong evidence. “Some additional data might be useful so we can find out for sure,” she said in an email. Asteroid hunters from all over the world will continue to watch this object to obtain this data.
And last year, British astronomer Nick Howes announced that an asteroid in its solar orbit was most likely the abandoned Apollo 10 Lunar Module, training on the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Source: New York Post