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


“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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Studying craters on asteroid Bennu shows how long it has been orbiting near Earth

Sunlight cracking rocks on Bennu
Exfoliation features on a cliff face (a) and on boulders (b-f) with varying size and location on asteroid Bennu from images taken by NASA’s OSIRIS-REX spacecraft. The bright dome on the horizon of panel (a) is a boulder behind the exfoliating cliff. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

A team of researchers affiliated with a host of institutions in the U.S., Canada and Italy has found that studying the craters on asteroid Bennu allowed them to calculate how long it has been orbiting near Earth. In their paper published in the journal Nature, the group describes their study of craters formed on boulders on the asteroid.

Asteroid Bennu has made headlines lately. It is the asteroid that the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft touched down on recently, collecting samples. That mission marked the first time that NASA has landed and collected samples from an asteroid. In this new effort, the researchers have been using data from the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to calculate how long the asteroid has been orbiting near Earth.

To learn more about the age of the asteroid and its time spent orbiting near the Earth, the researchers focused their efforts on craters in boulders on the surface of the asteroid. Prior research has suggested that Bennu was once part of a larger body and was knocked off by a collision with another object while orbiting in the circumstellar disc, an asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter.

After the collision, researchers believe Bennu slowly made its way out of the asteroid belt. During that time, it was struck by other objects, some of which hit boulders on its surface, resulting in large craters. After it made its way out of the asteroid belt, Bennu continued to be hit by other smaller objects, some of which also struck boulders on its surface, but the researchers with this new effort believe those newer strikes resulted in smaller impact craters. And because Bennu moved into a near-Earth orbit, those smaller craters represent the timeline of its move to the new orbit. By studying the size and depth of those craters using data from OSIRIS-Rex, the researchers were able to estimate their age—approximately 1.75 million years—which also shows how long Bennu has been in a near-Earth orbit.

NASA to launch delicate stowing of OSIRIS-REx asteroid samples

More information:
R.-L. Ballouz et al. Bennu’s near-Earth lifetime of 1.75 million years inferred from craters on its boulders, Nature (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2846-z

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Studying craters on asteroid Bennu shows how long it has been orbiting near Earth (2020, October 28)
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Two planets found orbiting a red dwarf

Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain

Red dwarfs are the coolest kind of star. As such, they potentially allow liquid water to exist on planets that are quite close to them. In the search for habitable worlds beyond the borders of our solar system, this is a big advantage: the distance between an exoplanet and its star is a crucial factor for its detection. The closer the two are, the higher the chance that astronomers can detect the planet from Earth.

“But these stars are rather small and emit little light compared to most other stars, such as our Sun,” Brice-Olivier Demory, lead author of the study and Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Bern explains. These factors make them challenging to observe in detail. Without the proper instruments, any planets that might orbit them could easily be overlooked—especially terrestrial planets, like Earth, that are comparably small.

A dedicated telescope

One instrument, with which it is possible to study red dwarfs and their planets closely, is the Mexico-based SAINT-EX telescope, co-operated by the NCCR PlanetS. SAINT-EX is an acronym that stands for Search And characterIsatioN of Transiting EXoplanets. The project has been named in honor of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Saint-Ex), the famous writer, poet and aviator.

The SAINT-EX Observatory is a fully robotic facility hosting a 1-meter telescope. It is equipped with instrumentation specifically suited to enable high-precision detection of small planets orbiting cool stars. Now, this specialization pays off: earlier this year, the telescope was able to detect two exoplanets orbiting the star TOI-1266, located around 120 light years from Earth. The research, published recently in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, provides a first impression of their characteristics.

Two planets found orbiting a red dwarf
The SAINT-EX Observatory is a fully robotic facility hosting a 1-metre telescope based in Mexico. Credit: Institute of Astronomy, UNAM / E. Cadena

A peculiar pair

Compared to the planets in our solar system, TOI-1266 b and c are much closer to their star—it takes them only 11 and 19 days respectively to orbit it. However, as their host star is much cooler than the Sun, their temperatures are not very extreme: the outer planet has approximately the temperature of Venus (although it is 7 times closer to its star than Venus is to the Sun). The two planets are of similar density, possibly corresponding to a composition of about a half of rocky and metallic material and half water. This makes them about half as rocky as Earth or Venus but also far rockier than Uranus or Neptune.

In size, the planets clearly differ from each other. The inner planet, TOI-1266 b, measures up to a little under two-and-a-half times the Earth’s diameter. This makes it a so-called “sub-Neptune.” The outer planet, TOI-1266 c, is just over one-and-a-half times the size of our planet. Thus, it belongs to the category of “super-Earths.”

This places the two planets at the edges of the so-called radius-valley, as Brice-Olivier Demory explains: “Planets between about the radius of TOI-1266 b and c are quite

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Pieces of orbiting space junk ‘avoid collision’

Artwork image of space debris
There is growing concern about the potential for more collisions in space (Artwork image)

Two items of space junk expected to pass close to one another have avoided collision, said a company which uses radar to track objects in orbit.

LeoLabs had said a defunct Russian satellite and a discarded Chinese rocket segment were likely to come within 25m of each other.

It said there were no signs of debris over Antarctica on Friday morning.

Other experts thought Kosmos-2004 and the ChangZheng rocket stage would pass with a far greater separation.

With the objects having a combined mass of more than 2.5 tonnes and relative velocity of 14.66km/s (32,800mph), any collision would have been catastrophic and produced a shower of debris.

And given the altitude of almost 1,000km, the resulting fragments would have stayed around for an extremely long time, posing a threat to operational satellites.

LeoLabs, a Silicon Valley start-up, offers orbital mapping services using its own radar network.

Dr Moriba Jah, an astrodynamicist at the University of Texas at Austin, worked out the miss distance to be about 70m.

And the Aerospace Corporation, a highly respected consultancy, came to a similar conclusion.

With more and more satellites being launched, there is growing concern about the potential for collisions.

The big worry is the burgeoning population of redundant hardware in orbit – some 900,000 objects larger than 1cm by some counts – and all of it capable of doing immense damage to, or even destroying, an operational spacecraft in a high-velocity encounter.

This week, the European Space Agency released its annual State of the Space Environment report, which highlighted the ongoing problem of fragmentation events.

These include explosions in orbit caused by left-over energy – in fuel and batteries – aboard old spacecraft and rockets.

On average over the last two decades, 12 accidental fragmentations have occurred in space every year – “and this trend is unfortunately increasing”, the agency said.

Also this week, at the online International Astronautical Congress, a group of experts listed what they regarded as the 50 most concerning derelict objects in orbit.

A large proportion of them were old Russian, or Soviet-era, Zenit rocket stages.

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