Fake asteroid? NASA expert IDs mystery object as old rocket
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - The template could be ready for an "asteroid" that is expected to be caught by Earth's gravity and turn into a mini moon next month.
Instead of a cosmic rock, the newly discovered object appears to be an old rocket from a failed lunar landing mission 54 years ago that is finally finding its way home, according to NASA's leading asteroid expert. Observations should help determine his identity.
"I'm pretty excited about it," Paul Chodas told The Associated Press. "It was a hobby of mine to find one and make that connection, and I've been doing it for decades."
Chodas speculates that the 2020 SO asteroid, as it is officially called, is actually the centaur upper stage rocket that successfully drove NASA's Surveyor 2 lander to the moon in 1966 before being discarded. The lander eventually crashed into the moon after one of its engines failed to ignite on the way there. The rocket, meanwhile, swept past the moon and orbited the sun as deliberate trash, never to be seen again - maybe until now.
A telescope in Hawaii discovered the mysterious object on our path last month when it was conducting a search to protect our planet from the doomsday rocks. The object was immediately added to the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center's list of asteroids and comets found in our solar system, just 5,000 below the 1 million mark.
The object is estimated to be around 8 meters due to its brightness. That is in the stadium of the old centaur, which would be less than 10 meters long including its motorized nozzle and a diameter of 3 meters.
What caught Choda's attention was that its nearly circular orbit around the Sun is quite similar to that of Earth - unusual for an asteroid.
"Flag number one," said Chodas, director of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
The object is also in the same plane as the earth, not tilted above or below another red flag. Asteroids usually pass by at odd angles. Eventually it approaches Earth at 2,400 km / h, which is slow by asteroid standards.
As the object approaches, astronomers should be able to better map its orbit and determine how much it is being pushed around by the radiation and the thermal effects of sunlight. If it's an ancient centaur - essentially a light, empty can - it moves differently than a heavy space rock, which is less susceptible to external forces.
Astronomers usually differentiate between asteroids and space debris like abandoned rocket parts, as both appear only as moving points in the sky. There are likely dozens of fake asteroids out there, but their movements are too imprecise or jumbled to confirm their man-made identities, Chodas said.
Sometimes it's the other way around.
For example, a 1991 mysterious object was identified by Chodas and others as a regular asteroid rather than debris, even though its orbit around the sun was similar to that of Earth.
Even more exciting was that in 2002, Chodas found the remaining third stage of the Saturn V from the 1969 Apollo 12, the second moon landing by NASA astronauts. He admits that the evidence was circumstantial given the object's chaotic year-long orbit around Earth. It was never referred to as an asteroid and left Earth orbit in 2003.
The path of the newest object is direct and much more stable, which supports his theory.
“I could be wrong. I don't want to appear overconfident, ”said Chodas. "But in my opinion it is the first time that all parts fit into an actually known start."
And he's pleased to note that it's a mission he followed as a teenager in Canada in 1966.
Asteroid hunter Carrie Nugent of the Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts said Chodas' conclusion was "good," based on solid evidence. She is the author of the 2017 book "Asteroid Hunters".
"Some more data would be useful so we can know for sure," she said in an email. “Asteroid hunters from around the world will continue to monitor this object for this data. I'm curious to see how it turns out! "
Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics noted that there have been "many, many embarrassing incidents of deep orbit objects ... that were given tentative asteroid designations for a few days before they were found to be artificial".
It is seldom unique.
Last year, a British amateur astronomer, Nick Howes, announced that an asteroid in orbit around the sun is likely the abandoned lunar module of NASA's Apollo 10, a sample for the Apollo 11 moon landing. While this object is likely artificial, Chodas and others are standing skeptical of the connection.
Skepticism is good, Howes wrote in an email. "It will hopefully lead to further observations the next time it's on our neck of the forest" in the late 2030s.
Choda's most recent goal was exceeded by the earth in their respective circles around the sun in 1984 and 2002. But it was too dark to see from 8 million kilometers away, he said.
He predicts that the object will orbit the earth for about four months after its capture in mid-November before shooting back into its own orbit around the sun next March.
Chodas doubts that the object will hit the ground - "at least not this time".
The Associated Press Department of Health and Science is supported by the Department of Science Education of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
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