A mysterious object will come so close to Earth, but scientists don’t know what it is

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A mysterious object is about to pass by earth, and scientists still don’t know what it is.

The object, which astronomers are calling “2020 SO”, will be cruising past our planet at a very close (but still safe) distance. Astronomers are hoping that when it does, they’ll be able to get a better look at it to ascertain its origins.

A Mysterious Space Object

Astronomers first spotted 2020 SO back in September from the NASA observation station in Hawaii. Initially, scientists thought that it was just another asteroid, and they believed this mysterious object had passed by the earth before. This time, however, it will be much closer: approximately one seventh of the distance that is between earth and the moon.

According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the object is about fifteen to thirty feet (4.5 to 9.1 meters) around. The scientists say that despite its close proximity, it should be able to fly by quite harmlessly [1].

Unravelling the Mystery

As scientists continued to study the mysterious object, however, some of them began to notice some strange features. This made them ask: is this an asteroid, or is it something else?

Paul Chodas is head of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. He and his team track the tens of thousands of space rocks that fly past the earth in case one of them appears to be on a collision course with us. For this reason, he evaluates observations of asteroids every day.

According to Chodas, however, 2020 SO didn’t look like a typical asteroid. No, he did not think it was some kind of UFO, but rather a piece of old space junk. More specifically, he guessed it might be an abandoned rocket stage from an earlier NASA mission.

After studying it for about a month, Chodas said in October that his observations provide very strong evidence that the mysterious object is, in fact, not a space rock. 

One of the pieces of evidence to build his case was the way 2020 SO was moving. An asteroid usually moves because of the gravitational forces acting on it. This object, however, appeared to be moving because of solar radiation pressure. This means that sunlight was pushing it through space.

“An asteroid is not easily pushed around,” said Chodas. “But an empty can, like a rocket stage, would be pushed around.” [2]

Mysterious Object: Leftover from an Old Launch?

But where did this piece of “space junk” come from? Chodas believes it’s from a 1966 NASA mission when scientists sent the rocket “Surveyor 2” to the moon. He says they have been looking for such an object for more than ten years.

“We’ve kind of mused about whether [or] when this would this happen,” he said. “I’ve over the years looked at asteroid orbits to see if any of them was in an orbit around the sun that was likely to have been associated with a launch.” [2]

There are two reasons why Chodas believes that 2020 SO is most likely from this old mission:

  1. It is moving very slowly relative to other materials and objects in space
  2. Its close trajectory around the sun is similar to that of earth

Most Likely Not an Asteroid

Asteroids, he says, typically travel much faster and don’t follow the earth’s orbit. He also notes that this mysterious object’s proximity to earth denotes that it is from a lunar mission. If it were from a mission to another planet, it would be circulating in orbits much further away from us.

In addition, the slow speed of the object is reminiscent of an object trying to land a spacecraft on the moon. Chodas explains that when you’re trying to land on the moon, you want to approach it fairly slowly. In this case, however, the rocket body missed the moon and fell into orbit around the sun.

To further solidify his suspicions, Chodas “rewound” 2020 SO’s orbit to see when it might have left the earth-moon orbit. The date he determined was late 1966, right around the time of the Surveyor 2 launch.

His observations are as of yet unconfirmed, however Chodas is confident with his prediction.

“This orbit is known so accurately that I can be very sure of the energy with which the rocket left the moon back in 1966, and the direction and geometry,” he said. “Everything fits the Surveyor 2 mission —  the velocity, the nearness to the moon, the date — everything matches to that launch, and it doesn’t match to the other launches.” [2]

How Long Will We Have this “Mini-Moon”?

NASA expects 2020 SO to remain in earth’s orbit until March 2021. At that point, it will enter into a different orbit around the sun [3].

As this mysterious object gets closer to earth, astronomers will be able to finally solve the riddle of its origins with certainty. For the rest of us, it will simply appear as a bright light flashing across the night’s sky.

Keep Reading: Apophis, The ‘God of Chaos’ Asteroid Could Hit Earth in 2068

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