What Is The Mystery Object About to Zoom Close Past Earth Tomorrow?

 

“The object about to pass Earth only 31,605 miles away on December 1, 2020, 
is likely not an asteroid; it’s probably the Centaur upper stage rocket booster that helped lift NASA’s ill-fated Surveyor 2 spacecraft toward the moon in 1966.”

— NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, November 30, 2020

 

NASA's ill-fated Surveyor 2 spacecraft headed for the moon in 1966 for survey work, but ”
NASA’s ill-fated Surveyor 2 spacecraft launched for the moon on September 20, 1966, on an an Atlas/Centaur from launch site 36A at Cape Kennedy, Florida. Liftoff took place at 12:31:59.824 UT. NASA: “Surveyor separation from the Centaur took place at 12:44:32.4 UT. During the 9.8 s midcourse maneuver firing at 5:00 UT on 21 September, one of the three vernier engines failed to ignite, resulting in an unbalanced thrust that caused the spacecraft to tumble at roughly 1.22 rev/s. The nitrogen gas system operated to stabilize the spacecraft, but could only marginally reduce the spin rate. Multiple attempts to fire the no. 3 engines to salvage the mission were unsuccessful. At terminal descent the vernier engines and retrorockets were fired at about 9:34 UT on 23 September. Signals ceased abruptly at 9:35:00, indicating it impacted the Moon, at a point estimated to be roughly 5.5 N, 12 W. The Surveyor program involved building and launching 7 Surveyor spacecraft to the Moon at a total cost of $469 million.”

November 30, 2020  Albuquerque, New Mexico – Earth has captured gravitationally a tiny object between 15 and 33 feet in diameter that was first thought to be an asteroid. The object, dubbed 2020 SO by astronomers, will come “extremely close” within 31,605 miles of our planet at 3:50 a.m. ET on December 1, according to NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. It was first seen by the Pan-STARRS survey based in Maui, Hawaii, on September 17, 2020.

But when Paul Chodas, Director of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, first saw the mystery object’s orbit, he “turned back the clock” and ran the object’s orbit backward to determine where it had been in the past.

NASA reports that Chodas found that the object had already passed relatively close to Earth several times over the past decades, including one moment that indicated it could have actually launched from Earth.

“One of the possible paths for 2020 SO brought the object very close to Earth and the Moon in late September 1966. It was like a eureka moment when a quick check of launch dates for lunar missions showed a match with the Surveyor 2 mission.”

This 1964 photograph shows a Centaur upper-stage rocket before being mated to an Atlas booster. A similar Centaur was used during the launch of Surveyor 2 two years later. Credit: NASA.
This 1964 photograph shows a Centaur upper-stage rocket before being mated to an Atlas booster. A similar Centaur was used during the launch of Surveyor 2 two years later that failed. Credit: NASA. Click to enlarge.

2020 SO was captured by Earth’s gravity on November 8, 2020, and calculations show it will remain in orbit around our planet as a temporary satellite until March 2021 before it escapes back into a new orbit around the sun.

“Small Asteroid Is Earth’s Constant Companion,” June 15, 2016, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California:
http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=6537

NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO):
https://www.nasa.gov/planetarydefense/overview

Int’l. Astronomical Union Minor Planet Center, “the nerve center of asteroid detection in the Solar System”: http://minorplanetcenter.net


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