An asteroid that was set to come close enough to Earth to be temporarily captured by its gravitational pull has turned out to be just space junk, according to Paul Chodas, the leading authority in asteroid research at NASA.Speaking to the Associated Press (AP), Chodas said the asteroid (2020 SO), which was supposedly destined to become a mini-moon, is instead the Centaur rocket booster from the failed Surveyor 2 Moon landing mission. Surveyor 2 was one of seven unmanned robotic spacecrafts NASA sent to the surface of the Moon from 1966-68 as part of the Surveyor lunar exploration program. The object was first discovered by a telescope in Hawaii in September, and was measured to be around 26 feet long - matching the estimated dimensions of the Centaur.The lander itself ended up crashing into the Moon following the failed ignition of one of its thrusters, sending it spinning through space for 54 hours before crashing into the Moon at around 6,000 mph. However, the Centaur booster ended up floating past the Moon on its original path after propelling Surveyor 2 toward the lunar surface and being disconnected from the craft.Chodas mentioned to AP that what he found interesting about the discovery – and what essentially alerted him that the object was the lost booster – is that it had mimicked a solar orbit similar to that of Earth's - something asteroids just don't do.He also added that the object is on the same level as Earth, where normally asteroids tend to take weird angles in their trajectory, and that the object's velocity was slow for an asteroid.“I’m pretty jazzed about this,” Chodas, who is director of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, told AP. “It’s been a hobby of mine to find one of these and draw such a link, and I’ve been doing it for decades now.”The object, whatever it may be, is projected to be captured by the Earth's gravity at two points, entering then escaping before reentering, before it finally escapes back into the abyss. It's expected to pass at distances of around 31,000 miles in December and 136,000 miles in February. Neither passing is in the ballpark to reach the atmosphere, but as it is sucked into Earth's gravity, scientists will have a better opportunity to study the object closer to confirm what it actually is as well as gain information for future asteroid research.
Asteroid 2020 SO may get captured by Earth from Oct 2020 - May 2021. Current nominal trajectory shows shows capture through L2, and escape through L1. Highly-chaotic path, so be prepared for lots of revisions as new observations come in. @renerpho @nrco0e https://t.co/h4JaG2rHEd pic.twitter.com/RfUaeLtEWq— Tony Dunn (@tony873004) September 20, 2020