The mysterious asteroid turned out to be a 1960s rocket booster

The second stage of the 1962 Centaur rocket booster is being assembled.

NASA confirmed On Dec. 2 that the asteroid 2020 SO, discovered in August, was actually a rocket booster launched more than 50 years ago.

In August, the Pan-StarRS telescope in Hawaii spotted an object orbiting near Earth, and in September identified it as an asteroid, calling it 2020 SO.

But Paul Chodas, director of NASA’s Center for Near Earth Objects (CNEOS), found its orbit somewhat unusual and suspected it was a man-made object. After preliminary calculations, he found that the object flew very close to Earth once before, in 1966, and that it was SO close that Jordas thinks 2020 SO is likely to be a second visit from the object that was launched from Earth.

So he teamed up with Vishnu Reddy at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Reddy specializes in asteroid classification and tracking space debris for the U.S. Air Force.

Using an infrared telescope in Hawaii, they captured a photograph of a booster on a Centaur rocket launched in 1977. The team managed to take two more photographs of them in visible light. The comparison shows that the fit between these photos and 2020 SO is very high.

“You can’t get a better fit than that.” “All the Centaurus rockets are made of the same stainless steel and plastic,” Reddy said.

They confirmed that 2020 SO was the booster for the centaurus rocket used in the 1966 Surveyor2 lunar mission. The mission was nearing the moon when one of its three thrusters failed to ignite, causing the spacecraft to roll out of control and crash to the moon on Sept. 23, 1966.

“This is yet another example of the accuracy with which orbital analysis and prediction can be achieved at the Center for Near Earth Objects. We can relate the orbit of a newly discovered object today to an object launched 54 years ago.”

2020 SO moved into a wide, irregular orbit around Earth last month, reached its closest point on December 1 — just 54,476 kilometers — and will leave Earth in March next year, heading for orbit around the sun, before returning again in 2036.