That Asteroid Heading Into Earth’s Orbit May Actually Be an Old Rocket From 1966

comet seen in the sky

What was thought to be an asteroid heading into Earth’s orbit next month might be complete garbage. A NASA expert says the object is likely an old rocket from a moon landing attempt back in 1966, according to the Associated Press.

Last month, an object known as asteroid 2020 SO was spotted from a telescope in Maui. It was expected to enter the Earth’s orbit this autumn and continue orbiting until about May 2021, in what is known as a mini moon, according to Smithsonian Magazine. CNN reported that it could come as close as 27,000 miles away.

But from the start, another theory was also out there. “I suspect this newly discovered object 2020 SO to be an old rocket booster because it is following an orbit about the Sun that is extremely similar to Earth's, nearly circular, in the same plane, and only slightly farther away [from] the Sun at its farthest point,” Dr. Paul Chodas, director of NASA's Center for Near Earth Object Studies, told CNN last month.

Now that it’s getting closer, it will start becoming easier to identify the mass, estimated to be about 26 feet, the AP reports. While both asteroids and old space rockets would appear to be specks moving in the sky, Chodas told the news service that the behavior continues to point toward the hypothesis of it being essentially an oversized tin can. Asteroids, he said, would move by at odd angles, while this one has been remaining in the Earth’s plane.

He also has a theory as to the actual rocket it might be. “I could be wrong on this. I don’t want to appear overly confident,” Chodas told the AP, speculating that it could be the upper rocket stage that boosted NASA’s Surveyor 2 to the moon in 1966. While the launch ended up crashing into the moon because of a failed thruster, it would make sense that the rocket just kept floating by, as it was intended. “It’s the first time, in my view, that all the pieces fit together with an actual known launch,” he added.

While mistaking asteroids for other objects — and vice versa — is common, other experts seem to agree with Chodas’ theory. Alice Gorman of Australia’s Flinders University told ScienceAlert that the speed also doesn’t line up with an asteroid: “The velocity seems to be a big one. What I'm seeing is that it's just moving too slowly, which reflects its initial velocity. That's essentially a big giveaway.”

But the prospect of it not being an asteroid is actually even more thrilling to Chodas. “I’m pretty jazzed about this,” he told the AP. “It’s been a hobby of mine to find one of these and draw such a link, and I’ve been doing it for decades now.”

Whatever it turns out to be, one thing’s for certain: There shouldn’t be any fear about it propelling into Earth — “at least not this time around,” he said. Chodas’ latest projection is that it will be absorbed into the Earth’s orbit in mid-November and then go back into its own orbit by March.

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