CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – A mysterious object in temporary orbit around the Earth is a 54-year-old rocket, after all it’s not an asteroid, astronomers confirmed Wednesday.
Observations from a telescope in Hawaii confirmed his identity, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The object was classified as an asteroid after its discovery in September. But NASA’s leading asteroid expert, Paul Chodas, quickly suspected it was the upper stage of Surveyor 2’s Centaur rocket, a failed 1966 moon landing mission. Size estimates had placed it in the range of the old Centaur, which was about 10 meters long and 3 meters in diameter.
Chodas was demonstrated soon after a team led by Vishnu Reddy of the University of Arizona used an infrared telescope in Hawaii to observe not only the mysterious object, but – on Tuesday – a 1971 centaur still in orbit around the Land. The image data matched.
“Today’s news was super gratifying!” Chodas said by email. “It was teamwork that ended this puzzle.”
The object formally known as 2020 SO entered a large, unbalanced orbit around Earth last month and, on Tuesday, came closer to just over 50,476 kilometers. It will depart from the neighborhood in March, resuming its orbit around the sun. His next return: 2036.