NASA says mysterious ‘mini-moon’ is actually a 1960s rocket booster

centaurupperstage1964

This photo from 1964 shows a Centaur upper-stage rocket. Space object 2020 SO is one of these.


NASA

Welcome back, Surveyor 2 Centaur rocket booster. We just got a new chapter in a bittersweet space saga that involves a fiery launch, a doomed moon mission and decades of space wanderings. 

A rocket booster NASA used to launch the Surveyor 2 lunar lander in 1966 has returned to us for a temporary spin as a mini-moon in orbit around Earth. When scientists spotted it in September, they named it 2020 SO. On Wednesday, NASA announced the strange object has been positively identified as the ’60s booster.

While the booster did its job admirably back in 1966, the lander didn’t survive a crash landing on the moon’s surface.   

The booster’s specific orbit around the sun tipped astronomers off that it probably wasn’t an asteroid, one of the many space rocks that zip around our cosmic neighborhood. Some sleuthing tracked the booster back to near Earth in 1966. 

Telescope observations have now revealed the stainless steel composition of 2020 SO. This cosmic detective work involved comparing spectrum data on the enigmatic object with data gathered on a known Centaur rocker booster that’s been floating around in space since 1971. It was a match. 

The object has attracted a lot of interest due to the mystery surrounding it and the fact that it was captured into an Earth orbit that makes it a cute little visiting mini-moon. The Virtual Telescope Project livestreamed 2020 SO when it came in close to Earth on Nov. 30.

The Centaur booster will stick around with us for a few months, but is expected to continue its space adventures back in orbit around the sun sometime in March 2021. At which point we can all say, “Goodnight, Centaur. Goodnight, mini-moon.”


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NASA confirms mysterious object orbiting Earth is 1960s-era rocket booster

The mystery is finally over — the space object that was captured by Earth’s orbit is indeed a rocket booster from the 1960s, NASA confirmed.

On Wednesday, the government space agency said the object known as “2020 SO” is not an asteroid, but rather a part of a Centaur rocket booster from the Surveyor 2 spacecraft, which launched toward the moon in 1966.

“Due to extreme faintness of this object following [Center for Near-Earth Object Studies] prediction it was a challenging object to characterize,” said Vishnu Reddy, an associate professor and planetary scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, in a statement. “We got color observations with the Large Binocular Telescope or LBT that suggested 2020 SO was not an asteroid.” 

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. Credit: NASA

MYSTERIOUS OBJECT THAT COULD BE 1960S ROCKET BOOST WILL FLY PAST EARTH TODAY: HOW TO VIEW IT

“This conclusion was the result of a tremendous team effort,” Reddy added. “We were finally able to solve this mystery because of the great work of Pan-STARRS, Paul Chodas and the team at CNEOS, LBT, [Infrared Telescope Facility], and the observations around the world.”

On Tuesday, the rocket booster made its closest brush with Earth, when it came within 50,000 kilometers (31,000 miles) of the planet, according to Virtual Telescope Project founder Gianluca Masi.

NASA has posted a video of 2020 SO’s looping orbits around the Earth.

Unfortunately, the Surveyor 2 never completed its journey, crashing on the lunar surface on Sept. 23, 1966. However, the Centaur booster “sailed past the Moon and disappeared into an unknown orbit about the Sun,” NASA said previously.

The rocket booster was initially discovered by the Pan-STARRS survey on Sept. 17, 2020 and announced two days later.

2020 SO initially “slowly drifted” into Earth’s Hill sphere on Nov. 8, 2020, and will remain there for roughly four months before it goes back into orbit around the sun in March 2021.

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NASA determines mystery space object 2020 SO is a ’60s rocket booster

centaurupperstage1964

This photo from 1964 shows a Centaur upper-stage rocket. Space object 2020 SO is one of these.


NASA

Welcome back, Surveyor 2 Centaur rocket booster. We just got a new chapter in a bittersweet space saga that involves a fiery launch, a doomed moon mission and decades of space wanderings. 

A rocket booster NASA used to launch the Surveyor 2 lunar lander in 1966 has returned to us for a temporary spin as a mini-moon in orbit around Earth. When scientists spotted it in September, they named it 2020 SO. On Wednesday, NASA announced the strange object has been positively identified as the ’60s booster.

While the booster did its job admirably back in 1966, the lander didn’t survive a crash landing on the moon’s surface.   

The booster’s specific orbit around the sun tipped astronomers off that it probably wasn’t an asteroid, one of the many space rocks that zip around our cosmic neighborhood. Some sleuthing tracked the booster back to near Earth in 1966. 

Telescope observations have now revealed the stainless steel composition of 2020 SO. This cosmic detective work involved comparing spectrum data on the enigmatic object with data gathered on a known Centaur rocker booster that’s been floating around in space since 1971. It was a match. 

The object has attracted a lot of interest due to the mystery surrounding it and the fact that it was captured into an Earth orbit that makes it a cute little visiting mini-moon. The Virtual Telescope Project livestreamed 2020 SO when it came in close to Earth on Nov. 30.

The Centaur booster will stick around with us for a few months, but is expected to continue its space adventures back in orbit around the sun sometime in March 2021. At which point we can all say, “Goodnight, Centaur. Goodnight, mini-moon.”


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Astronomer Captures Possible Image of NASA’s Long-Lost Centaur Rocket Booster

A possible image of NASA’s lost Centaur upper stage rocket booster, launched in 1966.

A possible image of NASA’s lost Centaur upper stage rocket booster, launched in 1966.
Image: Gianluca Masi, an astronomer with the Virtual Telescope Project 2.0

A tiny mystery object is zipping past the Earth today, providing astronomers with an excellent opportunity to finally confirm it as being the upper stage of a Centaur rocket that was launched by NASA in 1966.

Is it or isn’t it? This is the question that astronomers have been asking since September, when scientists with the Pan-STARRS1 survey in Maui, Hawai’i, first spotted the object, named 2020 SO. Astronomers have good reason to believe it’s returning space junk, specifically a Surveyor 2 Centaur rocket booster dating back to the 1960s. Trouble is, they haven’t actually been able to prove it.

2020 SO normally orbits the Sun, but Earth’s gravity has, albeit temporarily, turned this object into an artificial minimoon. The object will complete a pair of orbits around our planet before it adopts a new orbit around the Sun, but today (December 1, 2020) is a special day, as the object is making its closest approach to Earth.

Gianluca Masi, an astronomer with the Virtual Telescope Project 2.0—a group that uses remotely controlled telescopes to observe space—took the opportunity to capture a photo of the object last night.

“I managed to get a tracked image of the object, but also a trail [upper left in the photo] and the latter shows a dotted pattern, basically a bright dot, followed by a fainter one and so on,” Masi explained in an email. “This suggests the object was rotating, with a period of about 10 seconds.”

Masi said he’ll have more to share soon, so we’re looking forward to that.

Looking at the image, we still can’t be sure that we’re gazing upon the lost rocket booster, but we so want to believe that it is. The purpose of NASA’s Surveyor 2 mission was to examine the lunar surface prior to the Apollo missions. Launched on September 20, 1966, the mission started well, but on the second day, a thruster on Surveyor 2 failed to ignite, throwing the spacecraft into a spin. Surveyor 2 crashed onto the lunar surface, while the Centaur upper stage drifted past the Moon and into an unknown orbit around the Sun.

After that, no one gave it much thought.

NASA’s Surveyor program was actually quite successful, despite two failures out of seven attempts to perform soft landings on the lunar surface between 1966 and 1968. You can learn more about these missions here.

A Centaur second-stage rocket during assembly in 1962.

A Centaur second-stage rocket during assembly in 1962.
Image: NASA

Soon after 2020 SO was spotted by PanSTARRs, astronomers at the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory flagged the object on account of its unexpected behavior. The object’s orbit was more Earth-like than asteroid-like, featuring a nearly circular orbit within Earth’s orbital plane. That’s not typically seen in asteroids.

Additional observations showed that

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Rocket Lab says recovered booster in “good condition,” some parts will re-fly

Rocket Lab successfully launched its “Return to Sender” mission 10 days ago. Then, for the first time, the company attempted to recover the Electron booster’s first stage from the ocean after this launch, and now Rocket Lab has provided a preliminary assessment of the vehicle’s condition.

In summary, the company said in an update on its website, “We couldn’t have asked for a better outcome of our first recovery attempt and the team is thrilled.” The rocket came back in such good condition, the company added, “We will re-qualify and re-fly some components.”

The November 20 flight marked the first time Rocket Lab has fished an Electron out of the Pacific Ocean. The rocket was picked up in the waters off the coast of New Zealand, where the small booster launches from. Founder Peter Beck said the company wanted to assess the health of the first stage—and make necessary modifications to heat-shield and flight software—before going to the final step of catching the Electron rocket midair, with a helicopter.

Although they had conducted a number of tests before this mission, the company’s engineers weren’t entirely sure what they would get back after the Electron rocket experienced temperatures in excess of 2,400°C and speeds of 2.35km/s during its descent.

Video of Electron first-stage separation.

To accommodate this turbulent environment as Electron screamed back through the atmosphere, Rocket Lab added reaction-control-system thrusters to reorient the first stage for re-entry. A parachute system was also added to slow its descent lower in the atmosphere.

So how did the rocket’s heat shield withstand these conditions?

“The stage held up remarkably well,” the company said. “The carbon composite structure was completely intact. As expected, the heat shield on the base of the stage suffered some heat damage during re-entry. It was never designed for this load case, but before we strengthen the heat shield we wanted to see just how much heat it could take unchanged. With a wealth of data on this now, our team has already started working on upgrades for future recovery missions.”

What the news release does not say is how well the rocket’s engine section, with its nine Rutherford engines, fared during re-entry. Neither has the company released photos of the engine section itself. This suggests there is still significant work to be done to protect this area during re-entry.

“Data is great”

However, it seems likely that Rocket Lab will get there. The company’s engineers are now inspecting and analyzing “every inch” of the recovered first stage so that they can refine its recovery systems ahead of the next attempt. This will not take place on Rocket Lab’s next launch—the “Owl’s Night Begins” mission for Synspective, a Japanese Earth-imaging company, due to launch as soon as December 12.

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Rocket Lab on road to reusability after successful booster recovery

Rocket Lab is now confident that its reusability dreams can come true.

The company recovered the first stage of its two-stage Electron rocket for the first time on Thursday (Nov. 19), fishing the booster out of the Pacific Ocean a few hours after it had helped launch a 30-satellite mission aptly called “Return to Sender.”

The stage survived its trip back from space in great shape, helping to validate Rocket Lab’s reusability vision, according to company founder and CEO Peter Beck.

“The test was a complete success,” Beck said during a call with reporters today (Nov. 23). “We’re really confident now that Electron can become a reusable launch vehicle.”

Related: Rocket Lab and its Electron booster (photos)

The 58-foot-tall (18 meters) Electron, which gives small satellites dedicated rides to orbit, has been an expendable vehicle since its debut launch in 2017. Last year, however, Beck announced that the company plans to make the first stage reusable, chiefly to boost production and launch rates, although the move will likely lead to significant cost savings as well.

Rocket Lab’s recovery strategy is different than that of SpaceX, which routinely reuses the first stages of its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. Electron is too small to make vertical, powered touchdowns like the Falcon boosters do, Beck has said; the Rocket Lab vehicle cannot carry enough fuel to have enough left over for landing. So Electron first stages will come back to Earth under parachute and be plucked out of the sky with a helicopter before they hit the water.

Rocket Lab had already made significant progress toward this goal before the launch of “Return to Sender,” the 16th Electron flight. The company had guided boosters back to Earth in a controlled fashion on two previous missions, for example, and it demonstrated the helicopter-snagging technique during a drop test with a dummy first stage this past March.

But “Return to Sender” marked the first time an Electron first stage came home under parachute, and the first time it was recovered after splashdown.

Close-up of the Electron first stage recovered by Rocket Lab on Nov. 19, 2020. (Image credit: Rocket Lab via Twitter)

The recovery, which occurred in the Pacific about 400 miles (650 kilometers) from Rocket Lab’s New Zealand launch site, was no picnic. The recovery vessel encountered 6.5-foot (2 m) swells at the splashdown site, “so it was a pretty lively event out there,” Beck said. “Ironically, the stage survived in really great condition after coming back from space, but it did take a bit of a beating out at sea.”

And things got really sporty on the way back to shore, when the ship and its crew battled 16.5-foot (5 m) swells.

“Containers that were welded to the steel deck of the ship started breaking, so it was a pretty wild, wild trip,” said Beck, who remained onshore at mission control during the operation.

With the booster now back on dry land, Rocket Lab will methodically inspect its many components and

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Rocket Booster Likely Caused Lights in Hawaii’s Night Sky | Hawaii News

HONOLULU (AP) — Reports of a cluster of blinking lights traveling across Hawaii’s weekend night sky were likely caused by a rocket booster reentering the planet’s atmosphere, scientists said.

Astronomers said there is a high probability the booster pierced Earth’s atmosphere after orbiting for 12 years, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Tuesday.

Spectators posted photos and videos on social media of the lights that appeared Saturday night.

The booster identified by scientists was used to launch Venezuela’s communications satellite VENESAT-1 from China in October 2008.

The booster was in a low orbit and eventually slowed and reentered the atmosphere at about 10 p.m., said Roy Gal, associate astronomer of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

An aerospace company tracked and predicted the reentry of the booster, which correlated with Saturday’s reentry window, Gal said.

Some observers thought they may have spotted Starlink satellites launched by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX, the company found by Billionaire Elon Musk that has sent broadband internet satellites into orbit.

Others wondered whether they saw a meteor shower or a UFO.

What residents actually saw was the rocket body heating during reentry and breaking into pieces, Gal said.

“The friction from the atmosphere makes it glow and burn,” Gal said.

The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope atop Mauna Kea captured an image of the rocket booster streaking across the sky.

John O’Meara, chief scientist of the W.M. Keck Observatory, said the booster traveled at more than 20,000 mph (32,187 kph) before it disintegrated over the Pacific Ocean.

“Space junk” enters the atmosphere all the time, O’Meara said.

“We just usually don’t see it because we’re not in the right space to see it,” O’Meara said.

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Watch: Lights in Hawaii sky believed to be from 12-year-old rocket booster

Oct. 26 (UPI) — Experts said bright lights spotted in the sky over Hawaii were likely the remnants of a booster from a rocket launched 12 years ago.

John O’Meara, chief scientist of the W. M. Keck Observatory in Waimea, said the lights spotted in the sky Saturday night likely were from the booster of a Chinese rocket launched in 2008.

Mary Beth Laychak, strategic communications director for the Canada France Hawaii Telescope, said the appearance of the lights lines up with projections of the booster’s re-entry path.

“We can’t be 100% certain because we don’t have any of the pieces of the debris,” Laychak told KHON-TV. “But the pattern of the lights that we saw in our time lapse combined with this map.”

“This flight path and the precision at which all of these companies are able to estimate where their objects will enter and how they’ll break up is what really leads us to believe that this was this Venesat-1 re-entering the atmosphere,” she said.

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Chinese rocket booster and dead Soviet satellite are one a collision course in space

If that happens, the collision could produce thousands of pieces of space debris, the most since an active communications satellite operated by Iridium and a dead Russian satellite crashed into each other in 2009 some 500 miles over Siberia.

In addition to a couple thousand operational satellites, there is a lot of trash in space — spent satellites and old rocket boosters, the flotsam of previous collisions and military maneuvers, such as when China shot down a dead satellite with a missile in 2003.

The more junk in space, the greater the possibility of additional collisions, which in turn would produce even more debris, further exacerbating a problem that is growing worse.

“Every week we see close approaches, where derelict satellites, rocket bodies, are passing within 100 meters of each other,” said Daniel Ceperley, LeoLabs’ founder and CEO. “This isn’t like this happens once a year. This happens multiple times a week. It’s sort of a ticking time bomb that’s just out there in space.”

He said the chance of a collision was less than 10 percent, but added “that’s extremely high for the space industry. At one in 10,000, a satellite operator will move their satellite. At one in 1,000, it’s is considered an emergency.” He said the company would know within a “couple of hours” whether there is a collision or not. And he said the probability of a collision could change as the objects get closer, and the company gathers more data.

So far this year, the International Space Station has had to maneuver three times to avoid debris, NASA said. Speaking at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing recently, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine lamented the growing problem and said the in addition to the times the station has had to maneuver there “were three potential [collisions] that made us very nervous.”

The challenge, he said, is “we don’t have as a nation, or even as a world, a robust architecture for how we’re going to integrate all of these capabilities into this small space. And it’s becoming more and more of a problem.”

The concerns come as companies such as SpaceX and Amazon are vying to launch thousands of satellites to low-Earth orbit where they would beam the Internet to rural and underserved communities. Over the next 10 years, more than 50,0000 satellites could be launched, according to Analytical Graphics Inc., a company based outside of Philadelphia that also tracks spacecraft and debris. The Pentagon tracks about 22,000 pieces of debris larger than about four inches, but scientists say there are nearly 1 million larger than half an inch. With all floating around in orbit, AGI estimates that there could be as many as 404 collision and 17 million close calls in the most congested orbits over the next decade.

That is fueling a push in some quarters, including the White House, for a civilian agency, namely the Commerce Department to take over the job of tracking debris and issuing warnings. But that effort has moved slowly,

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