On August 19 this year, astronomers using the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) in Hawaii spotted an object destined to orbit the Earth this fall. Defined as the 2020 SO object, the object is believed to be a rocket booster from NASA’s Surveyor 2 mission, which landed on the Moon in 1966 during the Apollo era of the Cold War space race.
“I suspect this newly discovered 2020 SO object is an old rocket booster because it follows an orbit around the Sun that is extremely similar to Earth, almost circular, at the same plane, and just a little further from the Sun at its farthest point.” Dr. Paul Chodas, director of NASA’s Earth Survey Center, explained in comments to CNN.
“This is exactly the kind of orbit that a rocket from a lunar mission would follow as soon as it passes through the Moon and escapes into orbit around the Sun. “It’s unlikely an asteroid could orbit like this, but not impossible,” he said.
This particular type of event has only occurred once before, in 2002 with a Saturn V stage higher than Apollo 12, according to Dr. Chodas. Of course, there is still the possibility that 2020 SO is really an asteroid, in this case would be considered a minimoon while in direct orbit around the Earth. However, an old rocket boost finding could simply be considered “space junk” and subscribe to the 57,000 plus pieces of human wreckage currently being monitored by various entities.
“In about a month we will receive an indication of whether 2020 SO is really a rocket body, as we should begin to be able to detect the effect of sunlight pressure on the motion of this object: if it is really a rocket body, it will be much less dense than an asteroid and the slight pressure due to sunlight will cause enough change in its motion so that we can detect it in the tracking data, ”explained Dr. Chodas. Regardless of the name, 2020 SO will leave Earth’s orbit in February 2021.
The asteroid 2020 SO can be captured from Earth from October 2020 to May 2021. The current nominal paths show the capture via L2 and the escape via L1. Very chaotic route, so be prepared for a lot of reviews as new comments come in. @renerpho @ nrco0e https://t.co/h4JaG2rHEd pic.twitter.com/RfUaeLtEWq
– Tony Dunn (@ tony873004) September 20, 2020
The United States’ victory over the Soviet Union when the first humans landed on the Moon in July 1969 generally overshadowed the rest of the space race in the 1960s. Russian probes first reached the lunar surface, one in 1959 and one in another landed in February 1966. Inspector 1 landed on the Moon on June 2, 1966 to collect photographs for the Apollo landing estimate; Surveyor 2, as mentioned above, never completed its mission after being launched on an Atlas LV-3C Centaur-D rocket.
Is an astronomer’s space “trash can” a vintage space collector treasure? You decide. You can watch more about NASA Surveyor missions below: