Asteroid 2020 SO: Animation reveals nominal trajectory
Astronomers have been tracking the space object 2020 SO since it was discovered in September. Scientists had initially believed it to be a small asteroid which would eventually come within 50,000 km of Earth, or just 13 percent the distance between our planet and the Moon.
However, a swing by last night has shown that the ‘asteroid’ is actually likely to be a piece of rocket from the Surveyor 2 spacecraft which was sent to the Moon all the way back in 1966.
The object has been floating through the solar system ever since, travelling on a small orbit around the Sun.
Images from the Virtual Telescope Project which show the object against a backdrop of stars hint at its terrestrial origin.
Gianluca Masi of the Virtual Telescope Project said it is “likely Surveyor 2 rocket booster.”
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He said: “I managed to get a tracked image of the object, but also a trail (upper left in the picture) and the latter shows a dotted pattern, basically a bright dot, followed by a fainter one and so on.
“This suggests the object was rotating, with a period of about 10 seconds (the time between two dots of same brightness).”
Astronomer Kevin Heider said: “Asteroid 2020 SO is suspected of being the Surveyor 2 centaur rocket booster, launched on 20 September 1966.
“The Earth-like orbit and low relative velocity suggest a possible man-made object.”
Another hint that it is not a space rock is the speed it is travelling at – just 0.6 kilometres per second.
The average space rock travels at a speed of anywhere between 11 kilometres per second and 72 kilometres per second.
However, astronomers will now have several months to study the object.
As it swung by our planet, 2020 SO got caught in Earth’s gravitational pull.
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Simulations show that the object will continue to swing around our planet until March, 2021, before it gets lost to the solar system once more.
The Virtual Telescope Project said: “After it was discovered, 2020 SO nature was checked by JPL’s CNEOS Director Paul Chodas, who suggested it could be the Centaur upper stage rocket booster involved in the Surveyor 2 spacecraft launch toward the Moon, back in 1966.
“Furthermore, it has been temporarily captured by our planet and, from to Nov. 2020 to March 2021, it will be a satellite of the Earth.”
Earth’s last mini-moon came earlier this year when a small meteor called 2020 CD3, which was about the size of a car, was captured by the planet’s orbit.
The space rock stayed in orbit for around three months, before continuing its voyage across the solar system in March.
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