Astronomers have discovered a small object in space that will pass through the Earth on December 1, 2020 by a small margin of only 50,000 km. Not only that, but the gravity of our planet will change its course so much, it will become the temporary moon of the earth!
Here’s the real kicker: This object is almost certainly an object No Instead of asteroids, astronomers believe it is actually a rocket booster launched in 1966 from a robotic moon mission!
[UPDATE (2 December 2020): After its close pass on 1 December, astronomers have confirmed that 2020 SO is indeed a Centaur upper stage rocket. Using NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility, they observed both 2020 SO and a known Centaur rocket in Earth orbit for comparison. The two spectra matched well enough for them to conclude that 2020 SO is not a natural asteroid but instead the rocket that helped launch Surveyor 2 to the Moon (with unfortunate results; see the text below). Mystery solved!
Also, this object was observed by the Virtual Telescope Project 2.0, and they have images and video:
The object object, known as the 2020 SO, was discovered in September 2020 by the Pan-Stars Telescope, which surveys some of the closest objects to Earth in the sky. It didn’t take long for the orbit to see how strange it was… in which it was Familiar. Its size, shape and geometry are close to the Earth’s orbit.
It would be very unusual for an asteroid, but for a rocket booster or space probe it is exactly what you would expect. So astronomers discovered the orbit from behind, and found something wonderful: in September 1966 it was very close to Earth! If it were an asteroid, it would mean it would have passed us by at that time, but if it were really from a space mission it would be the date of launch.
And, it happens, there Was Then a spacecraft was launched: Surveyor 2, a mission to investigate the moon.
In fact, it gets better. Surveyor 2 was launched on September 20, 1966 using the Atlas-Centaur rocket. The first phase of the atlas performed well, and the upper phase of the centurion then accelerated the spacecraft toward the moon. However, the midcourse correction made by Surveyor 2 went awry, causing the spacecraft to get into trouble which could not be recovered. Later in those lunar days about 10,000 kph. Uch ch.
But that second phase, the Centaur Booster, was gone. It passed through the moon and went into orbit around the sun.
Can 2020 therefore be that Centaur rocket?
It is very likely. The brightness of the 2020 SO indicates that it is about 4-10 meters wide. The centaur is about 3×13 meters in size, so it fits.
And even though they seem to be one and the same, there’s more reason for that. A very careful measure of the orbit of the Careful object shows that it is being severely affected by the pressure of sunlight. The photons of the sun hit the object and are reflected away by changing its speed over time. This force (like the York effect) gradually changes the orbit of a no-object, but it is more pronounced for less large (hence, usually smaller) for objects. The spent rocket booster is a large hollow tube, so this effect should be strong, as astronomers have found.
The orbit of the 2020 SO is similar to that of Earth, when one overtakes one it is relatively slow (like two cars on the highway moving fast, but one car seems to be passing at a slower pace) . In November 2020 it passed through an area called the Earth’s Hill Zone, the amount of space around the Earth where our planet’s gravity dominates the Sun. This volume is about 1.5 million kilometers in radius.
Normally no interstitial substance passed exactly through there, but by 2020 S.O. Moving at a slow enough speed to be captured by the earth for a short time. It will take about four months to create an even larger loop around us, then the gravity of the moon and the earth on its other pass will once again become the satellite of the sun and release energy.
When it approaches in December, astronomers hope to be able to get observations that will tell us its composition. It can catch the case of its origin.
I will note that as has happened before, the old space hardware passed over Earth and initially mistakenly for asteroids. Also, we have a temporary moon! Asteroid 2020 CD3 orbited the Earth for a few years before moving back to 2020. Another asteroid, 2006RH120, orbited the Earth for a few months in 2006/7. However, another object (just 20 cm across) actually burned up in our atmosphere in the form of a meteorite after orbiting the Earth for a while.
This is the nickname Minutes, Although is a technical term Temporarily captured .bjects, Or TCOs. It’s a dormancy of orbital mechanics, but an interesting one. I wonder if, in the very distant future, we can send someone a space probe, as our slow pace relative to them makes them a juicy target.
… But, what would be surprising if, 2020 S.O. Like, it became the upper stage spent on an old space mission instead of a planet! It will be cool. Scientists may be disappointed, but I believe there will be very interesting engineering data – for example, the effects of solar wind erosion, or the effects of micrometrics – in which rocket scientists will have to rub to get their hands on. And if it’s an asteroid, well, it won’t be that bad either.
So stay tuned. In a few weeks we should know a lot about these enigmatic visitors from space.