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NASA Expert: That Asteroid? I Don't Think It's an Asteroid

Paul Chodas looks closely at that thing headed our way
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Oct 11, 2020 5:00 PM CDT

(Newser) – The jig may be up for an "asteroid" that's expected to get nabbed by Earth's gravity and become a mini moon next month, the AP reports. Instead of a cosmic rock, the newly discovered object appears to be an old rocket from a failed moon-landing mission 54 years ago that’s finally making its way back home, according to NASA's leading asteroid expert. Observations should help nail its identity. "I'm pretty jazzed about this," says Paul Chodas. "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." Chodas speculates that asteroid 2020 SO, as it is formally known, is actually the Centaur upper rocket stage that successfully propelled NASA's Surveyor 2 lander to the moon in 1966 before it was discarded.

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The lander ended up crashing into the moon after one of its thrusters failed to ignite on the way there. The rocket, meanwhile, swept past the moon and into orbit around the sun as intended junk, never to be seen again—until perhaps now. A telescope in Hawaii last month discovered the mystery object heading our way while doing a search intended to protect our planet from doomsday rocks. The object promptly was added to the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center's tally of asteroids and comets found in our solar system, just 5,000 shy of the 1 million mark. The object is estimated to be roughly 26 feet based on its brightness. That's in the ballpark of the old Centaur, which would be less than 32 feet long including its engine nozzle and 10 feet in diameter.

(Read more asteroids stories.)

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