A 1966 rocket is coming home….
Astronomers first spotted an unknown object with an incoming trajectory in September 2020 and initially believed it was an asteroid.
But in December, the object named 2020 SO came within 30,000 miles of Earth and allowed NASA to confirm it is a discarded rocket booster from the failed Surveyor 2 mission in 1966.
After February 2, the rocket’s orbit will move further and further away until Earth finally releases it from its grasp in March and will continue its journey around the sun.
2020 SO is coming back February 1 and 2 for one final victory lap before it leaves Earth’s gravity and drifts out into space.
It’ll still be 140,000 miles away, almost five times as far as in December, but still far closer than the moon, which is about 240,00 miles from Earth.
Objects both natural and manmade can get caught in Earth’s orbit before drifting out into space and are called ‘mini-moons.’
The object known as 2020 SO was first spotted by the Pan-STARRS survey in Hawaii on September 17, 2020.
Scientists observed it had been earthbound for more than a year and predicted it would become trapped in our planet’s gravity starting in October of that year.
Some thought it was a comet and, initially, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Small-Body Database classified it as an Apollo asteroid, a class of asteroids whose paths cross Earth’s orbit.
However, experts noted almost immediately that 2020 SO moved much slower than a typical Apollo asteroid, suggesting it could be man-made space debris.
In December, NASA confirmed Earth’s temporary neighbor was actually a discarded piece of the Surveyor 2 rocket, a failed moon mission in 1966, three years before Neil Armstrong set foot on the Sea of Tranquility.
The agency’s asteroid expert, Paul Chodas, was the first to suspect the satellite was the Centaur upper rocket stage, as it matched the Centaur’s dimensions.
According to NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies Database, 2020 SO is between 12 and 46 feet long, and the Centaur measured 41.6 feet.