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On December 1, Asteroid 2020 SO flew by Earth at an extremely close distance. The object came within just 13 percent of the distance between the Earth and the Moon, giving astronomers the perfect opportunity to witness the event. It had been suspected Asteroid 2020 SO was not an asteroid, and NASA observations have now confirmed that.
The space agency has revealed that the object in question was in fact aa rocket booster from the launch of Surveyor 2 in 1966.
The rocket in question was a Centaur rocket booster, which was used to launch Surveyor 2 in what was NASA’s second time landing an uncrewed machine on the Moon.
NASA collected data from the Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) and orbit analysis from the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to determine the orbit of 2020 SO.
They found it has come close to our planet several times over the past decades, including in 1966.
NASA then compared the data they were equipped with to other launch missions and concluded 2020 SO could be the Centaur upper stage rocket booster from NASA’s ill-fated 1966 Surveyor 2 mission to the Moon.
The team also examined the brightness of the object.
The compared the colour spectrum of 2020 SO with 301 stainless steel – the material used to create the Centaur rocket – and found a match.
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.
Vishnu Reddy, an associate professor and planetary scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, said: “We knew that if we wanted to compare apples to apples, we’d need to try to get spectral data from another Centaur rocket booster that had been in Earth orbit for many years to then see if it better matched 2020 SO’s spectrum.
“Because of the extreme speed at which Earth-orbiting Centaur boosters travel across the sky, we knew it would be extremely difficult to lock on with the IRTF long enough to get a solid and reliable data set.
“This conclusion was the result of a tremendous team effort.
“We were finally able to solve this mystery because of the great work of Pan-STARRS, Paul Chodas and the team at CNEOS, LBT, IRTF, and the observations around the world.”
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As 2020 SO came so close to Earth, the planet actually managed to capture it in its orbit.
According to NASA, the object will continue to orbit our planet until March 2021, with NASA using the time to study the object.
The space agency said: “2020 SO made its closest approach to Earth on Dec. 1, 2020 and will remain within Earth’s sphere of gravitational dominance—a region in space called the ‘Hill Sphere’ that extends roughly 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometres) from our planet—until it escapes back into a new orbit around the Sun in March 2021.
“As NASA-funded telescopes survey the skies for asteroids that could pose an impact threat to Earth, the ability to distinguish between natural and artificial objects is valuable as nations continue to explore and more artificial objects find themselves in orbit about the Sun.
“Astronomers will continue to observe this particular relic from the early Space Age until it’s gone.”
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