Asteroid or space junk: Mystery minimoon will make ‘extremely close’ flyby – how to watch

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Asteroid 2020 SO was first spotted on so-called Earth approach on September 17 this year. Although astronomers at first classified the object as a tiny space rock – no more than 32ft wide (10m) – subsequent observations have now cast doubt on this label. Not only was 2020 SO too slow to be an asteroid, but it was also heading our way on an unusual trajectory that temporarily locked it into Earth’s orbit

The object was eventually caught in Earth’s gravity on November 8, by which time astronomers have proposed it is not an asteroid but a 1960s-era rocket booster.

According to the US space agency NASA, there is a strong possibility Earth’s temporary new minimoon is the spent upper stage of the 1966 Surveyor 2 mission.

Surveyor 2 was NASA’s ill-fated attempt to land scientific instruments on the Moon, just three years before the historic Apollo 11 mission.

Unfortunately, the mission was a failure as a mid-course trajectory correction caused the spacecraft to crash into the Moon near the Copernicus crater.

But an analysis of more than 170 observations in the last three months has led NASA to determine 2020 SO is following the same trajectory the rocket’s Centaur stage did – and it will visit Earth next week.

Paul Chodas, director of NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), said: “One of the possible paths for 2020 SO brought the object very close to Earth and the Moon in late September 1966.

“It was like a eureka moment when a quick check of launch dates for lunar missions showed a match with the Surveyor 2 mission.”

The object drifted into Earth’s gravitational sphere of influence on November 8, entering a region that extends about 930,000 miles (1.5 million km) from the planet.

This region of space is known as the Hill sphere and 2020 SO will remain there for about four months before being kicked back out into space.

The object will enter a new orbit of the Sun in March 2021, but not before completing two large laps around the planet.

According to astrophysicist Gianluca Masi of the Virtual Telescope Project in Italy, 2020 SO will make its approach during one of these laps on December 1.

At its absolute closest, 2020 SO will come within about 31,000 miles (50,000km) of Earth.

And the good news is you will be able to watch the safe flyby live online, courtesy of the Virtual Telescope.

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How to watch the asteroid’s close flyby live online:

The object 2020 SO will make its closest flyby of Earth on Tuesday, December 1.

The Virtual Telescope will track it on the night of November 30, starting at 10pm GMT (5pm EST, 2pmPDT).

The stream will be hosted on YouTube and here on Express.co.uk, free of charge.

Dr Masi said: “On December 1, 2020, the near-Earth object 2020 SO will have an extremely close, but safe, encounter with us, coming at about 50,000km from the Earth, 13 percent of the average lunar distance.

“We still don’t know what it is: an asteroid or the Surveyor 2 rocket booster.

“The Virtual Telescope Project will show it to you live.”

Objects similar in size 2020 SO sometimes get caught in Earth’s gravity and are referred to as minimoons.

Minimoons typically orbit the planet for about a year before being kicked back out into interstellar space.

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