In this Aug. 13, 1965 photo provided by the San Diego Air and Space Museum, technicians work on an Atlas Centaur 7 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla. NASA’s leading asteroid expert, Paul Chodas, speculates that asteroid 2020 SO, as it is formally known, is actually a Centaur upper rocket stage that propelled NASA’s Surveyor 2 lander to the moon in 1966 before it was discarded. (Convair/General Dynamics Astronautics Atlas Negative Collection/San Diego Air and Space Museum via AP)

In this Aug. 13, 1965 photo provided by the San Diego Air and Space Museum, technicians work on an Atlas Centaur 7 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla. NASA’s leading asteroid expert, Paul Chodas, speculates that asteroid 2020 SO, as it is formally known, is actually a Centaur upper rocket stage that propelled NASA’s Surveyor 2 lander to the moon in 1966 before it was discarded. (Convair/General Dynamics Astronautics Atlas Negative Collection/San Diego Air and Space Museum via AP)

Fake asteroid? NASA expert IDs mystery object as old rocket

A telescope in Hawaii last month discovered the mystery object heading our way

The jig may be up for an “asteroid” that’s expected to get nabbed by Earth’s gravity and become a mini moon next month.

Instead of a cosmic rock, the newly discovered object appears to be an old rocket from a failed moon-landing mission 54 years ago that’s finally making its way back home, according to NASA’s leading asteroid expert. Observations should help nail its identity.

“I’m pretty jazzed about this,” Paul Chodas told The Associated Press. “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.”

Chodas speculates that asteroid 2020 SO, as it is formally known, is actually the Centaur upper rocket stage that successfully propelled NASA’s Surveyor 2 lander to the moon in 1966 before it was discarded. The lander ended up crashing into the moon after one of its thrusters failed to ignite on the way there. The rocket, meanwhile, swept past the moon and into orbit around the sun as intended junk, never to be seen again — until perhaps now.

A telescope in Hawaii last month discovered the mystery object heading our way while doing a search intended to protect our planet from doomsday rocks. The object promptly was added to the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center’s tally of asteroids and comets found in our solar system, just 5,000 shy of the 1 million mark.

The object is estimated to be roughly 26 feet (8 metres) based on its brightness. That’s in the ballpark of the old Centaur, which would be less than 32 feet (10 metres) long including its engine nozzle and 10 feet (3 metres) in diameter.

What caught Chodas’ attention is that its near-circular orbit around the sun is quite similar to Earth’s — unusual for an asteroid.

“Flag number one,” said Chodas, who is director of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

The object is also in the same plane as Earth, not tilted above or below, another red flag. Asteroids usually zip by at odd angles. Lastly, it’s approaching Earth at 1,500 mph (2,400 kph), slow by asteroid standards.

As the object gets closer, astronomers should be able to better chart its orbit and determine how much it’s pushed around by the radiation and thermal effects of sunlight. If it’s an old Centaur — essentially a light empty can — it will move differently than a heavy space rock less susceptible to outside forces.

That’s how astronomers normally differentiate between asteroids and space junk like abandoned rocket parts, since both appear merely as moving dots in the sky. There likely are dozens of fake asteroids out there, but their motions are too imprecise or jumbled to confirm their artificial identity, said Chodas.

Sometimes it’s the other way around.

A mystery object in 1991, for example, was determined by Chodas and others to be a regular asteroid rather than debris, even though its orbit around the sun resembled Earth’s.

Even more exciting, Chodas in 2002 found what he believes was the leftover Saturn V third stage from 1969’s Apollo 12, the second moon landing by NASA astronauts. He acknowledges the evidence was circumstantial, given the object’s chaotic one-year orbit around Earth. It never was designated as an asteroid, and left Earth’s orbit in 2003.

The latest object’s route is direct and much more stable, bolstering his theory.

“I could be wrong on this. I don’t want to appear overly confident,” Chodas said. “But it’s the first time, in my view, that all the pieces fit together with an actual known launch.”

And he’s happy to note that it’s a mission that he followed in 1966, as a teenager in Canada.

Asteroid hunter Carrie Nugent of Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts, said Chodas’ conclusion is “a good one” based on solid evidence. She’s 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 watch this object to get that data. I’m excited to see how this develops!”

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics’ Jonathan McDowell noted there have been “many, many embarrassing incidents of objects in deep orbit … getting provisional asteroid designations for a few days before it was realized they were artificial.”

It’s seldom clear-cut.

READ MORE: SpaceX capsule and NASA crew make 1st splashdown in 45 years

Last year, a British amateur astronomer, Nick Howes, announced that an asteroid in solar orbit was likely the abandoned lunar module from NASA’s Apollo 10, a rehearsal for the Apollo 11 moon landing. While this object is likely artificial, Chodas and others are skeptical of the connection.

Skepticism is good, Howes wrote in an email. “It hopefully will lead to more observations when it’s next in our neck of the woods” in the late 2030s.

Chodas’ latest target of interest was passed by Earth in their respective laps around the sun in 1984 and 2002. But it was too dim to see from 5 million miles (8 million kilometres) away, he said.

He predicts the object will spend about four months circling Earth once it’s captured in mid-November, before shooting back out into its own orbit around the sun next March.

Chodas doubts the object will slam into Earth — “at least not this time around.”

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Marcia Dunn, The Associated Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Aviation and spaceNASA

Just Posted

President of the Tahltan Central Government, Chad Norman Day, surveys Tahltan territory by helicopter in this July 2019 handout photo. The Tahltan Nation and the British Columbia government have struck what officials say is a historic agreement for shared decision-making for the nation’s territory in northwestern B.C., a hot spot for mineral exploration. Day says the deal shows they are “getting closer and closer to a true nation-to-nation relationship.” THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Tahltan Central Government
Tahltan Nation, B.C. government sign agreement for shared decision-making

Deal commits the province and the northwest B.C. nation to developing a land-use plan

Tahltan First Nation wildlife guardian, Jarett Quock, above and below right, was awarded the Outstanding Individual Leadership Award by the Indigenous Leadership Initiative on June 3. (Photos courtesy Adam Amir)
Tahltan wildlife guardian receives outstanding leadership award

Jarett Quock’s contributions were recognised by the Indigenous Leadership Initiative

Taylor Bachrach, NDP MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley addresses Parliament on June 7, in call for the federal government to stop fighting Indigenous children in court and to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action. (Image: supplied from Facebook)
NDP motion calling for immediate reconciliation action passes

Skeena-Bulkley MP Taylor Bachrach addresses federal Parliament

The farmhouse in Glentanna where the founding meeting of the Bulkley Valley Credit Union took place on April 14, 1941. (BV Museum archive)
Bulkley Valley Credit Union announces finalists for legacy project donation

Community can vote for one of the three finalists from each area

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

A vial containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is shown at a vaccination site in Marcq en Baroeul, outside Lille, northern France, Saturday, March 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Michel Spingler
mRNA vaccines ‘preferred’ for all Canadians, including as 2nd dose after AstraZeneca: NACI

New recommendations prioritizes Pfizer, Moderna in almost all cases

Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum speaks at a press conference in August 2019 about provincial government approval of the city’s change to a municipal force, joined by councillors (from left) Mandeep Nagra, Allison Patton and Doug Elford. Members of the National Police Federation claim there is still no transition plan in place although Surrey RCMP’s contract with the city is due to end March 31.(File photo)
Elections BC approves petition application for referendum on Surrey policing transition

Application was filed under Recall and Initiative Act by the widow of a Surrey murder victim

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Queen’s counsel Paul Doroshenko, a Vancouver lawyer, has been suspended from practice for two months after admitting that his firm mismanaged $44,353.19 in client trust funds. (Acumen Law)
High-profile B.C. lawyer suspended over $44K in mismanaged client trust funds

Queen’s counsel Paul Doroshenko admits to failing to supervise his staff and find, report the shortage

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., center left, reaches over to Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., joined by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., center, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus as they celebrate the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act that creates a new federal holiday to commemorate June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people after the Civil War, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 17, 2021. It’s the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Biden to sign bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday

New American stat marks the nation’s end of slavery

Athena and Venus, ready to ride. (Zoe Ducklow - Sooke News Mirror)
Goggling double-dog motorcycle sidecar brings smiles to B.C. commuters

Athena and Venus are all teeth and smiles from their Harley-Davidson sidecar

Kimberly Bussiere and other laid-off employees of Casino Nanaimo have launched a class-action lawsuit against the Great Canadian Gaming Corporation. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
B.C. casino workers laid off during pandemic launch class-action lawsuit

Notice of civil claim filed in Supreme Court of B.C. in Nanaimo against Great Canadian Gaming

A Photo from Sept. 2020, when First Nations and wild salmon advocates took to the streets in Campbell River to protest against open-pen fish farms in B.C.’s waters. On Dec. 17, federal fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan announced her decision to phase out 19 fish farms from Discovery Islands. Cermaq’s application to extend leases and transfer smolts was denied. (Marc Kitteringham/Campbell River Mirror)
Feds deny B.C.’s Discovery Island fish farm application to restock

Transfer of 1.5 million juvenile salmon, licence extension denied as farms phased out

Most Read