The object was classified as an asteroid after its discovery in September but, Nasa’s top asteroid expert, Paul Chodas, quickly suspected it was the Centaur upper rocket stage from Surveyor 2, a failed 1966 moon-landing mission.
This September 20, 1966 photo provided by the San Diego Air and Space Museum shows an Atlas Centaur 7 rocket on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral. (Photo: AP)
Nasa has confirmed that a mysterious object that is temporarily orbiting Earth is a 54-year-old rocket and not an asteroid.
According to Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California’s Pasadena, observations by a telescope in Hawaii clinched the mysterious object’s identity.
The object was classified as an asteroid after its discovery in September but, Nasa’s top asteroid expert, Paul Chodas, quickly suspected it was the Centaur upper rocket stage from Surveyor 2, a failed 1966 moon-landing mission, news agency AP said in its report.
Size estimates had put it in the range of the old Centaur, which was about 32 feet (10 meters) long and 10 feet (3 meters) in diameter.
Chodas suspicion that the mysterious object was a rocket was proven right after a team led by the University of Arizona’s Vishnu Reddy used an infrared telescope in Hawaii to observe not only the mystery object, but – just on Tuesday – a Centaur from 1971 still orbiting Earth. The data from the images matched.
“Today’s news was super gratifying!,” AP quoted Chodas’s email. “It was teamwork that wrapped up this puzzle.”
The object, formally known as 2020 SO, entered a wide, lopsided orbit around Earth in November and, on Tuesday, made its closest approach at just over 31,000 miles (50,476 kilometers). It will reportedly depart the neighborhood in March, shooting back into its own orbit around the sun. Its next return is scheduled in 2036.