NASA space scientists have identified a previously “unidentified object” orbiting near Earth as a relic of past space exploration.
Researchers at the Pan-STARRS1 survey telescope on Maui, while looking for asteroids, noticed the near-Earth object in September. But the NEO captivated their interest as to what the object could be due to its size and unusual orbit. The mystery was studied by observatories all over the world, according to a NASA press release.
However, scientists at the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory identified the NEO as the 1960s-Era Centaur rocket booster from an ill-fated mission to the Moon.
Research into the object’s path revealed it came close to Earth numerous times over the decades, with one approach in 1966 so close to Earth scientists speculated it could have originated from our planet.
“Due to extreme faintness of this object following CNEOS prediction it was a challenging object to characterize,” said Vishnu Reddy, a planetary scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, who led a team in observing the NEO. “We got color observations with the Large Binocular Telescope or LBT that suggested 2020 SO was not an asteroid.”
Reddy’s team compared the characteristics of the object with 301 stainless steel; the material used to create the Centaur rocket boosters. However, it wasn’t a perfect match due to what researchers suspected had something to do with the NEO being bombarded by 54 years worth of space weather.
On Tuesday, the team compared the suspected 1966 rocket with another centaur rocket booster in the Earth’s orbit, one from a 1971 launch, and found the two materials to be consistent with each other.
“This conclusion was the result of a tremendous team effort,” Reddy said. “We were finally able to solve this mystery because of the great work of Pan-STARRS, Paul Chodas, and the team at CNEOS, LBT, IRTF, and the observations around the world.”
The NEO made its closest approach to Earth Tuesday and is expected to remain within Earth’s neighborhood in a region of space called the “Hill Sphere,” which extends 930,000 miles from Earth. It’s predicted to escape into a new orbit around the Sun in March 2021.
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