The device could be for an “asteroid” that is expected to be captured by Earth’s gravity and become a mini moon next month. Instead of a space rock, the newly discovered object looks like an old rocket from a failed moon landing mission 54 years ago, which is finally returning home, according to NASA’s leading asteroid expert. Observations should help his nails.
“I’m quite annoyed by this,” Paul Chodas told the Associated Press. “My hobby was to find one of them and make such a connection, and I’ve been doing it for decades.”
Chodas speculates that asteroid 2020 SO, as it is officially known, is actually the Centaur̵
Eventually, the landing party crashed into the moon after one of its pushers failed to ignite on the way there. Meanwhile, the rocket passed the moon and orbited the sun as intended, never to be seen again – until now.
Chodas told CBS News that it is very rare for an object orbiting the Sun to be captured in Earth orbit.
“The object must have a very special orbit around the sun for such a capture to happen,” he said. “It’s happened a few times before for natural sites we know about, and only once before for an old rocket scene.”
A Hawaiian telescope last month discovered a mysterious object that was heading toward us as it conducted a search designed to protect our planet from the Doomsday rocks. The object was immediately added to the International Astronomical Union’s list of asteroids and comets with asteroids and comets found in our solar system, only 5,000 shy of 1 million.
The subject is estimated to be approximately 26 feet (8 meters) based on its brightness. This is in the Old Centaur Stadium, which will be less than 10 feet (10 meters) long, including the engine nozzle and 3 feet in diameter.
What caught Hodas’s attention was that his almost circular orbit around the sun was quite similar to Earth’s – unusual for an asteroid.
“Flag number one,” said Chodas, director of the Near-Earth Object Research Center at NASA’s Southern California Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The object is also in the same plane as the Earth, not tilted above or below, another red flag. Asteroids usually flutter at strange angles. Finally, it is approaching Earth at 1,500 miles per hour, slowly by asteroid standards.
As the object approaches, astronomers must be able to better delineate its orbit and determine how much it has been displaced by the radiation and thermal effects of sunlight. If it is an old centaur – essentially a light empty box – it will move differently from a heavy cosmic rock, less susceptible to external forces.
In this way, astronomers usually distinguish between asteroids and space debris as abandoned parts of rockets, as both look just like moving points in the sky. There are probably dozens of fake asteroids, but their movements are too inaccurate or confused to confirm their artificial identity, Chodas said.
Sometimes the opposite is true.
A mysterious object in 1991, for example, was defined by Hodas and others as an ordinary asteroid, not debris, although its orbit around the Sun resembles that of Earth.
Even more exciting, Chodas in 2002 discovered what he believed to be the remnant of Saturn V, the third stage of Apollo 12 from 1969, the second moon landing by NASA astronauts. He acknowledges that the evidence is circumstantial, given the object’s chaotic one-year orbit around the Earth. It was never identified as an asteroid and left Earth orbit in 2003.
The route of the last object is direct and much more stable, reinforcing its theory.
“I may be wrong about that. I don’t want to look too confident,” Chodas said. “But I think for the first time, all the parts fit together with a really known start.”
And he is happy to note that this is a mission he followed in 1966 as a teenager in Canada.
Asteroid hunter Carrie Nugent of Olin Technical College in Needham, Massachusetts, said Chodas’ conclusion was “good” based on solid evidence. She is the author of the 2017 book Asteroid Hunters.
“Some more data would be useful so we can know for sure,” she said in an email. “Asteroid hunters from around the world will continue to monitor this object to get this data. I’m glad to see how this develops!”
Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics noted that there were “many, many disturbing incidents of deep-orbiting objects … receiving temporary designations of asteroids for a few days before realizing they were artificial.”
It is rarely clear.
Last year, British amateur astronomer Nick House announced that an asteroid in solar orbit was probably NASA’s abandoned Apollo 10 lunar module, a rehearsal for the Apollo 11 moon landing. While the object is likely artificial, Chodas and others are skeptical of the connection.
Skepticism is good, House wrote in an email. “We hope this will lead to more observations when it’s next in our neck of the forest” in the late 2030s.
The last target of interest to Chodas was transmitted from Earth in their orbits around the sun in 1984 and 2002. But it was too dark to be seen at a distance of 8 million kilometers, he said.
He predicts that the object will spend about four months orbiting the Earth after being captured in mid-November before launching back into its own orbit around the sun in March next year.
Chodas doubts that the object will collide with the Earth – “at least not this time.”
Sophie Lewis contributed to this report.