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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Long-Lost Tectonic Plate Discovered Hundreds of Miles Below Canada

A team of scientists say they have uncovered evidence of a mysterious tectonic plate beneath northern Canada that some experts argue never existed.

In a study published in the Geological Society of America Bulletin, the researchers from the University of Houston identified the remains of the ancient plate—which had mostly disappeared by around 40 million years ago—hundreds of miles beneath Canada’s Yukon territory.

Whether or not the plate—dubbed “Resurrection”—ever existed has long been a hot topic of debate in the field of geology.

Tectonic plates are vast slabs of the planet’s crust, which are in constant, albeit very gradual, motion. Regions where these plates meet tend to be seismically and volcanically active.

Geologists have long known that there were two tectonic plates—called Kula and Farallon—at the beginning of the Cenozoic Era (66 million years ago to the present day) in the Pacific Ocean off the western coast of North America.

But some experts have suggested that a third plate, Resurrection, may have accompanied Kula and Farallon for a time before it mostly sunk beneath the Earth’s surface between 60 and 40 million years ago, in a process known as “subduction.”

As Resurrection slid under the North American Plate—which contains most of North America, as well as Greenland, the northern Caribbean, and parts of Siberia, Iceland, and the Azores—it would have melted and deformed due to the extreme heat of the Earth’s interior, becoming significantly smaller in size.

Now, University of Houston researchers say they have found a large chunk of the crust they believe represents the remains of Resurrection.

Firstly, the scientists analyzed existing mantle topography images, which provided a snapshot of the Earth’s interior beneath North America.

This analysis revealed a chunk of rock 250 to 370 miles below the Yukon, which they have dubbed the “Yukon Slab.”

The team then used a computer modeling technique called “slab unfolding” in order to reconstruct what any subducted plates once looked like in the area. This approach revealed that the Yukon Slab closely matched the hypothesized shape of the Resurrection plate toward the beginning of the Cenozoic Era.

“We believe we have direct evidence that the Resurrection plate existed,” Spencer Fuston, co-author of the study from the University of Houston, said in a statement. “We are also trying to solve a debate and advocate for which side our data supports.”

The researchers say the latest findings could improve our ability to predict volcanic hazards in the region and identify mineral deposits, while also providing new insights into the Earth’s climate.

“Volcanoes form at plate boundaries, and the more plates you have, the more volcanoes you have,” Jonny Wu, another co-author of the study, said in a statement. “Volcanoes also affect climate change. So, when you are trying to model the earth and understand how climate has changed since time, you really want to know how many volcanoes there have been on earth.”

North America tectonics
A plate tectonics reconstruction of western North America 60 million years ago, showing the Kula, Farallon and Resurrection
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