Mysterious object that flew by Earth has finally been identified

2020 so

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2020 so

  • The object originally dubbed Asteroid 2020 SO appears to be a long-lost rocket booster that left Earth in 1966 and finally came back.
  • The booster was part of a failed NASA mission to the Moon, and it has apparently been orbiting the Sun ever since.
  • Space junk is becoming an increasingly serious problem, and manmade trash in space could pose a threat to future missions.

Back in September news began to circulate that an object was headed for Earth. That alone wouldn’t be particularly big news, but what made this revelation so interesting is that nobody knew what the object actually was. Was it an asteroid? Perhaps it was, but some scientists offered a different explanation, and now that the object has safely passed by Earth it appears they were probably correct.

The strange near-Earth object originally dubbed Asteroid 2020 SO turned out to be likely manmade. It is now believed to be the remains of a very old rocket that was launched way back in the 1960s. As the mysterious visitor passed by Earth, images of it helped to potentially reveal its true identity, and remind us yet again that humans have a habit of leaving trash wherever they go.

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Researchers working with the Virtual Telescope Project held a live stream event to track the object as it approached our planet. The high-powered hardware was able to lock onto the bright dot as it cruised through space, and astrophysicist Gianluca Masi, the founder of the project, noted that it was “likely” a piece of NASA hardware that has come back to visit.

Scientists had suspected that the object might not really be an asteroid for some time. This was based on the fact that the object appeared to have a very similar Sun-centric orbit to Earth’s, and the relatively low velocity of 2020 SO offered further clues that it was actually just a piece of junk we accidentally sent flying around the Sun.

The rocket — if that is indeed what it turns out to be — is thought to be a Centaur booster launched way back in September of 1966. It was part of the Surveyor 2 mission which was supposed to send a lunar lander to the Moon’s surface. Unfortunately, the spacecraft lost control and the mission failed as a result, but the rocket booster appears to have lived on, making trips around the Sun and eventually catching back up with Earth.

If a rocket booster from 1966 can come back to “haunt” us after that long, then it’s no surprise that Earth is surrounded by pieces of manmade junk that just won’t go away. Recently, the European Space Agency made the decision to spend the equivalent of roughly $100 million for a mission that will remove a single large piece of space junk from the area around our planet. The mission will launch sometime in 2025.


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Giant ‘toothed’ birds flew over Antarctica 40 million to 50 million years ago

Picture Antarctica today and what comes to mind? Large ice floes bobbing in the Southern Ocean? Maybe a remote outpost populated with scientists from around the world? Or perhaps colonies of penguins puttering amid vast open tracts of snow?

Fossils from Seymour Island, just off the Antarctic Peninsula, are painting a very different picture of what Antarctica looked like 40 to 50 million years ago – a time when the ecosystem was lusher and more diverse. Fossils of frogs and plants such as ferns and conifers indicate Seymour Island was much warmer and less icy, while fossil remains from marsupials and distant relatives of armadillos and anteaters hint at the previous connections between Antarctica and other continents in the Southern Hemisphere.

There were also birds. Penguins were present then, as they are now, but fossil relatives of ducks, falcons and albatrosses have also been found in Antarctica. My colleagues and I have recently published an article revealing new information about the fossil group that would have dwarfed all the other birds on Seymour Island: the pelagornithids, or “bony-toothed” birds.

Giants of the sky

As their name suggests, these ancient birds had sharp, bony spikes protruding from sawlike jaws. Resembling teeth, these spikes would have helped them catch squid or fish. We also studied another remarkable feature of the pelagornithids – their imposing size.

The largest flying bird alive today is the wandering albatross, which has a wingspan that reaches 11 ½ feet. The Antarctic pelagornithids fossils we studied have a wingspan nearly double that – about 21 feet across. If you tipped a two-story building on its side, that’s about 20 feet.

Across Earth’s history, very few groups of vertebrates have achieved powered flight – and only two reached truly giant sizes: birds and a group of reptiles called pterosaurs.

A model of an enormous prehistoric bird is mounted outdoor in the middle of a river. The wingspan reaches from bank to bank.
A model of an enormous prehistoric bird is mounted outdoor in the middle of a river. The wingspan reaches from bank to bank.

Pterosaurs ruled the skies during the Mesozoic Era (252 million to 66 million years ago), the same period that dinosaurs roamed the planet, and they reached hard-to-believe dimensions. Quetzalcoatlus stood 16 feet tall and had a colossal 33-foot wingspan.

Birds get their opportunity

Birds originated while dinosaurs and pterosaurs were still roaming the planet. But when an asteroid struck the Yucatan Peninsula 66 million years ago, dinosaurs and pterosaurs both perished. Some select birds survived, though. These survivors diversified into the thousands of bird species alive today. Pelagornithids evolved in the period right after dinosaur and pterosaur extinction, when competition for food was lessened.

The earliest pelagornithid remains, recovered from 62-million-year-old sediments in New Zealand, were about the size of modern gulls. The first giant pelagornithids, the ones in our study, took flight over Antarctica about 10 million years later, in a period called the Eocene Epoch (56 million to 33.9 million years ago). In addition to these specimens, fossilized remains from other pelagornithids have been found on every continent.

Pelagornithids lasted for about 60

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