According tomedia The Verge, Earth is on the verge of getting a temporary “mini-satellite” — which could be space junk. Researchers are tracking an object that looks like it will be captured by Earth’s gravity for several months this winter and then safely returned to the solar system. It may be a standard asteroid, but some astronomers say the mysterious object’s path suggests it may have been part of a 1960s rocket.
“I’m very surprised by this,” Paul Chodas, a scientist at NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Research, told The Associated Press. Chodas is one of the world’s leading asteroid experts and has been searching for returning space debris for decades.
Last month, researchers in Hawaii confirmed the object for the first time. They named it 2020 SO and designated it a near-Earth asteroid.
But for a typical asteroid, the object is a little strange. It moves relatively slowly, it is on the same plane as the earth, and its orbit is almost around the sun, just like the earth. Chodas believes that all of these features are “red flags” that may indicate that the object was ever launched from Earth.
“This is exactly the orbit that the rocket stage separated from the lunar mission follows once it passes the moon and escapes into orbit around the sun. Asteroids are unlikely to evolve into such orbits, but they are not impossible. Chodas told CNN on Sept.
The object appears to be 26 feet long, about the size of the centeraur rocket’s top stage. This, combined with its path through the solar system, makes it a perfect match for the rocket booster that helped NASA launch the Surveyor 2 mission in 1966. The task itself was a failure. After a successful launch, one of the spacecraft’s thrusters malfunctioned, plunging it into the moon.
The booster that launched the fateful spacecraft passed all the way through the moon to the solar system. Once the object is closer, researchers will be able to determine whether the 2020 SO is a booster, not a space rock. Boosters like this are made of relatively light metal — they don’t move in space the same way as dense rocks.
Whatever the object is, it is expected to stay in Earth orbit for several months this winter before continuing on the road. Only a few of these temporarily captured objects (or, informally, mini-satellites) have been observed, including one that hovered between 2006 and 2008 and another that lingered unnoticed for about a year before leaving in March 2020.