A mysterious object temporarily orbiting Earth is a 54-year-old rocket, not an asteroid after all, astronomers confirmed yesterday. Observations by a telescope in Hawaii clinched its identity, according to NASAs' Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The object was classified as an asteroid after its discovery in September. But NASAs' top asteroid expert, Paul Chodas, quickly suspected it was the Centaur upper rocket stage from Surveyor 2, a failed 1966 moon-landing mission. Size estimated hand put it in the range of the old Centaur, which was about 32 feet (10 metres) long and 10 feet (3 metres) in diameter.
Chodas was proven right after a team led by the University of Arzona's Vishnu Reddy used an infrared telescope in Hawaii to observe not only the mystery object, bu - just on Tuesday - a Centaur from 1971 still orbiting Earth. The data from the image matchecd. "Today's news was super gratifying!," Chodas said via email. "It was teamwork that wrapped up this puzzle."
The object formally known as 2020 So entered a wide, lopsided orbit around Earth last month and, on Tuesday, made its closest approach at just over 31,000 miles (50,476 kilometres).
Published: December 4, 2020 (THT)