NEO confirmed as 1960s rocket booster

SCIENTISTS have confirmed suspicions that a strange near-Earth object (NEO) baptised as 2020 SO is in fact a Centaur rocket booster from the 1960s.

The object, discovered in September by astronomers searching for near-Earth asteroids, piqued the interest of the scientific community due to its unusual size and orbit and there was speculation over what it could be.

Using data collected at NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) and orbit analysis from the Centre for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, scientists have now been able to confirm that it is a manmade object, most probably the Centaur upper stage booster rocket from NASA’s ill-fated 1966 Surveyor 2 mission to the Moon.

Studies revealed that the object has come close to Earth several times over the decades, with a focus in 1966 bringing it close enough to suggest that it may have originated on Earth. Comparing this data with the history of previous NASA missions, Paul Chodas, director of CNEOS, concluded that 2020 SO could be the rocket.

Equipped with this knowledge, a team led by Vishnu Reddy, associate professor and planetary scientist at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, conducted follow-up spectroscopy observations of 2020 SO using NASA’s IRTF in Maunakea, Hawaii, which initially confirmed that it was not an asteroid, and have ultimately identified the object as a 1960s rocket booster.

The 2020 SO came closest to Earth on December 1, 2020 and will remain within Earth’s gravitational domain sphere, a region in space called the “Hill Sphere” that extends approximately 1.5 million kilometres from our planet, until it goes back into a new orbit around the Sun in March 2021.

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Jennifer Leighfield

Jennifer Leighfield, born in Salisbury, UK; resident in Malaga, Spain since 1989. Degree in Translation and Interpreting in Spanish, French and English from Malaga University (2005), specialising in Crime, Forensic Medicine and Genetics. Published translations include three books by Richard Handscombe. Worked with Euro Weekly News since November 2006. Well-travelled throughout Spain and the rest of the world, fan of Harry Potter and most things ‘geek’.