The 1960s were a time of great technological optimism and international competition, and space exploration was reason — and the venue — for much of it. Yet everything futuristic will one day pass into history, and it turns out that some of the 20th century’s most sophisticated rocket technology is now little more than space junk that, on occasion, circles back into Earth’s orbit. Such circumstances provide us an opportunity to reflect on the arc of history. They can also make for prime viewing for those with an interest in astronomy and the science of space exploration.
That’s what’s expected to happen today, as a mysterious object believed to be a Centaur rocket booster from the 1966 launch of the Surveyor 2 rocket traverses the skies 49,890 km from the our planet. Originally launched as part of the American Surveyor program, the unmanned lunar expedition failed to reach the Moon, relegating what was a key vessel in U.S. efforts to claim supremacy in the Space Race into a wayward piece of debris floating through the solar system.
Here’s what we know about the object — which could still be an asteroid — and how to see it.
What is this object?
While it’s unclear if this flying object is a rocket booster or an asteroid, it does have an official name. The object was first discovered by astronomers using the Pan-STARRS1 telescope at Haleakala, Hawaii, and given the name 2020 SO. Though it was quickly noted as an asteroid, researchers discovered a few distinctions that led them to believe otherwise.
As Earth Sky notes:
However, 2020 SO was quickly seen to have some features that set it apart from ordinary asteroids. According to NASA/JPL calculations, the object sped past Earth’s moon at a speed of 3,026 km per hour (3,025 km/h) or 0.84 km per second (.5 mi/sec). That is an extremely slow speed for an asteroid.
Paul Chodas, the Director of NASA’s Centre for Near-Earth Object Studies, discovered in November that the orbital history of 2020 SO bore a striking resemblance to the launch of the Surveyor 2 rocket.
He said in a NASA news release:
“One of the possible paths for 2020 SO brought the object very close to Earth and the Moon in late September 1966. It was like a eureka moment when a quick check of launch dates for lunar missions showed a match with the Surveyor 2 mission.”
How long will 2020 SO remain in Earth’s orbit?
On a galactic scale, this is just a brief rendezvous: According to NASA, 2020 SO will remain in Earth’s orbit until March 2021, when it’s pulled back into a solar orbit.
As the space agency notes:
On Nov. 8, 2020 SO slowly drifted into Earth’s sphere of gravitational dominance, a region called the Hill sphere that extends roughly 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from our planet. That’s where 2020 SO will remain for about four months before it escapes back into a new orbit around the Sun in March 2021.
The duration of the object’s stay in our orbit will classify it as a mini-moon of Earth, albeit only for a short time. It’s proximity to our planet will peak on December 1 — which is today.
How to see it
Unfortunately, you can’t see this thing with the naked eye, but the Virtual Telescope Project has a livestream that you can keep open on your computer all day. Today is a pivotal day in determining whether the object is a piece of history or a regular asteroid, and it’s close proximity to Earth will give researchers their best chance to make that distinction.
And if you access the livestream, you can accompany them on this scientific journey.