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August 2, 2021
PHOTO CREDITS: NBC 6
According to Paul Chodas, the director of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Asteroid 2020 SO expected to enter Earth’s gravity in mid-November may not be an asteroid at all, but part of a rocket.
Last month, astronomers in Hawaii were looking for asteroids on a collision course with Earth. While doing this, they found “asteroid 2020 SO”, which was thought to be a small asteroid orbiting the sun. It was added to the Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center’s record of asteroids and comets, being only 5,000 short of their one millionth.
Chodas believes that this body is actually the Centaur upper rocket stage that launched NASA’s Surveyor 2 to the moon in 1966 before it was discarded as space junk. The spacecraft ended up crashing into the moon as one of its thrusters failed to ignite. Meanwhile, the rocket swept past the moon and into orbit around the sun.
Based on brightness, the object is estimated to be about 26 feet in length, making it around the same size as the old rocket, which was under 32 feet long including the nozzle, and about 10 feet in diameter. There are other indicators that it is a man-made object, such as the object, like Earth, has a near-circular orbit. Secondly, it is revolving on the same plane as Earth, whereas most asteroids fly by at peculiar angles. Finally, it is only approaching with a speed of 1,500 miles per hour, and the average asteroid moves at around 59,000 miles per hour. Chodas said, “I could be wrong on this. I don’t want to appear overly confident, but it’s the first time, in my view, that all of the pieces fit together with an actual known launch” (Snopes).
As the object gets closer, astronomers will be better able to map out its orbit to determine how much it is pushed around by the sun’s radiation of energy. An old rocket would be comparable to an empty can, getting tossed about by the intense radiation of the sun. An actual asteroid would be much harder to push around due to its immense mass.
ARTICLE: JOSEPH MODICA
SCIENCE/HEALTH EDITOR: KYLE SMITH