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 reveals Earth’s ‘mini-moon’ 2020 SO is definitely just space junk

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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Scientists characterize second known minimoon

Scientists help characterize second known minimoon
International Gemini Observatory image of 2020 CD3 (center, point source) obtained with the 8-meter Gemini North telescope on Hawaii’s Maunakea. The image combines three images each obtained using different filters to produce this color composite. 2020 CD3 remains stationary in the image since it was being tracked by the telescope as it appears to move relative to the background stars, which appear trailed due to the object’s motion. Credit: International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/G. Fedorets

Astronomers using data collected with the Lowell Discovery Telescope (LDT) have helped to characterize only the second known minimoon of Earth, a newly discovered asteroid with the designation 2020 CD3, or CD3 for short. The LDT observations helped to clarify both the rotation rate and the orbit of this diminutive body, the latter of which helped prove that CD3 is a natural body and not some relic piece of human-made space junk.


Minimoons are small asteroids temporarily captured into orbit around Earth. Within about a year, they are flung back into interplanetary space. The first known minimoon, 2006 RH120, was detected 14 years ago.

CD3 was discovered on February 15, 2020 by Kacper Wierzchos and Teddy Pruyne via the Catalina Sky Survey, operating out of the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Due to the rarity of minimoons, a global effort led by postdoctoral research fellow Grigori Fedorets of Queen’s University Belfast was quickly launched to study this object. Twenty-three researchers from 14 academic institutions in seven countries participated, using several telescopes including the LDT. The team made observations through mid-May 2020 and published their results today in The Astronomical Journal.

Lowell Observatory astronomer Nick Moskovitz and former Lowell postdoctoral fellow/current Arecibo Observatory scientist Maxime Devogele participated in the effort, assisted in observing on the LDT by the University of Maryland’s Quanzhi Ye. By measuring CD3’s changing brightness over time (i.e. its light curve) with the Large Monolithic Imager (LMI) on the LDT, they established its rotation rate to be about three minutes. Fedorets said, “The rotation rate was probably the largest unanswered question of this research. The Lowell team showed that it rotates slower than anticipated for objects of this size range.”

Moskovitz and his Lowell colleagues also used the LMI/LDT combination to precisely measure CD3’s position to refine its orbit. This information, combined with CD3’s physical characteristics—such as an inferred silicate composition—indicate this is certainly a natural object. This distinguishes it from another recently discovered object, 2020 SO, which scientists believe may be the upper stage of NASA’s Surveyor 2 spacecraft.

The study estimates CD3 is approximately 1-1.5 meters in diameter—about the size of a small car— and that it came within about 13,000 kilometers (8,100 miles) of Earth at closest approach. Observing objects this small is challenging and requires a telescope big enough to see them. In addition, their transient nature means the window of time to observe them can close quickly. Enter the 4.3-meter LDT, Lowell Observatory’s flagship telescope. Its large size and ready availability make it optimized for such studies.

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