NASA’s top asteroid expert believes that an object currently hurtling toward Earth may not be a piece of cosmic rock as first thought, but instead part of a rocket that left our planet 54 years ago.
Paul Chodas, manager of the space agency’s Near-Earth Object Office, told the AP that the “asteroid,” which acquired the name “2020 SO” when it was discovered last month, may turn out to be the upper stage of a Centaur rocket that launched NASA’s Surveyor 2 lander to the lunar surface in 1966 before the section was jettisoned in the usual way, sending it into an orbit around the sun.
Of course, no one expected to see the rocket ever again, but more than five decades on, it looks as if the aging piece of space junk is set to revisit the celestial body from which it launched all those years ago.
Chodas said he decided to investigate the object more closely when he noticed that it had a near-circular orbit around the sun — rare for an asteroid. Other factors suggesting it may be the Centaur rather than space material include its relatively slow speed of travel at 1,500 mph (about 2,400 kph). Early observations also reveal dimensions similar to those of the rocket.
Although he’s still not ready to say for sure if the object really is an old rocket section, Chodas says that it’s the first time in many years of such analysis that all of the evidence points to the possibility.
The NASA expert told the AP he was “pretty jazzed” about the discovery, adding, “It’s been a hobby of mine to find one of these and draw such a link.”
Now that the object is starting to receive wider attention, more astronomers will be pointing their telescopes toward the night sky to try to get a glimpse of it and offer their own opinion regarding its true identity. As asteroids move differently to other objects while hurtling through space, it should be easier to reach a conclusion in the next few weeks as it becomes more visible.
While the object would surely create a spectacular light show if it struck the Earth’s atmosphere, Chodas thinks it’s unlikely to happen on this particular visit. Instead, he believes the object will circle Earth for about four months before heading out on its orbit of the sun again in March of next year.
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