1960s Era Rocket May Have Returned to Earth Orbit

Scientists at the U.S. space agency NASA say the remnants of a 1960s unmanned lunar mission may have returned to orbit the Earth 54 years later.
Scientists first discovered the object in September, using a special survey telescope on the Hawaiian island of Maui.  They originally believed it to be a small asteroid, and named it 2020 SO.  When they discovered the object’s path would bring it close to Earth, it came to the attention of the Center for Near Earth Objects (CNEOS) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
But the scientists there quickly noticed the object’s orbit was different than a normal asteroid. While the typical asteroid has an elongated orbit and is tilted relative to Earth, the orbit of this object was on nearly the exact orbital plane as Earth.
CNEOS Director Paul Chodas says further study and measurements of the object made it clear it was likely man-made, based on its size and density, and likely a piece of a rocket.  Chodas suspected it was a remnant of a lunar mission, and to prove it, he ran 2020 SO’s orbit backwards, tracing its closest path to Earth to September 1966.
That matched the launch date for NASA’s Surveyor 2 lunar lander, an unmanned probe designed to land on the surface of the Moon and survey possible landing sites ahead of the Apollo missions, which would put men on the lunar surface for the first time in 1969.
The probe was launched on an Atlas-Centaur rocket and separated from its Centaur upper stage booster shortly after liftoff.  The spacecraft malfunctioned a day later when one of its boosters failed to ignite, and the probe crashed into the Moon.  The spent Centaur upper-stage rocket, meanwhile, sailed past the Moon and disappeared into an unknown orbit around the Sun.
Now, it appears to be back, if only for a relatively brief visit. NASA scientists believe Earth’s gravity pulled 2020 SO into an outer orbit on November 8, circling about 1.5 million kilometers above our planet. They expect it will remain there for about four months before escaping into a new orbit around the Sun in March.  
NASA says 2020 SO will make two large loops around Earth with its closest approach December 1. That is when astronomers will get a closer look and study its composition using spectroscopy to confirm if it is indeed an artifact from the early Space Age.


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