Back in September news began to circulate that an object was headed for Earth. That alone wouldn’t be particularly big news, but what made this revelation so interesting is that nobody knew what the object actually was. Was it an asteroid? Perhaps it was, but some scientists offered a different explanation, and now that the object has safely passed by Earth it appears they were probably correct.
The strange near-Earth object originally dubbed Asteroid 2020 SO turned out to be likely manmade. It is now believed to be the remains of a very old rocket that was launched way back in the 1960s. As the mysterious visitor passed by Earth, images of it helped to potentially reveal its true identity, and remind us yet again that humans have a habit of leaving trash wherever they go.
Researchers working with the Virtual Telescope Project held a live stream event to track the object as it approached our planet. The high-powered hardware was able to lock onto the bright dot as it cruised through space, and astrophysicist Gianluca Masi, the founder of the project, noted that it was “likely” a piece of NASA hardware that has come back to visit.
Scientists had suspected that the object might not really be an asteroid for some time. This was based on the fact that the object appeared to have a very similar Sun-centric orbit to Earth’s, and the relatively low velocity of 2020 SO offered further clues that it was actually just a piece of junk we accidentally sent flying around the Sun.
The rocket — if that is indeed what it turns out to be — is thought to be a Centaur booster launched way back in September of 1966. It was part of the Surveyor 2 mission which was supposed to send a lunar lander to the Moon’s surface. Unfortunately, the spacecraft lost control and the mission failed as a result, but the rocket booster appears to have lived on, making trips around the Sun and eventually catching back up with Earth.
If a rocket booster from 1966 can come back to “haunt” us after that long, then it’s no surprise that Earth is surrounded by pieces of manmade junk that just won’t go away. Recently, the European Space Agency made the decision to spend the equivalent of roughly $100 million for a mission that will remove a single large piece of space junk from the area around our planet. The mission will launch sometime in 2025.