A real-life space oddity: Asteroid hurtling towards earth might be a piece of rocket trash from 1966

A real-life space oddity: ‘Asteroid’ hurtling towards Earth may be a piece of rocket that was jettisoned during attempted moon landing in 1966

  • A telescope discovered ‘asteroid 2020 SO’ hurtling towards Earth last month
  • Now scientists believe the object is part of an Atlas Centaur 7 rocket from 1966
  • The rocket propelled NASA’s Surveyor 2 to the moon before going into orbit

As any school pupil will be able to tell you, what goes up must come down – but it doesn’t usually take 54 years.

Back in 1966, the Nasa team behind an attempted Moon landing thought they would never see their rocket again after it was swept into the Sun’s orbit.

Now, however, it would appear to be hurtling back towards Earth at 1,500mph.

A telescope in Hawaii discovered the mystery object last month. It’s estimated to be about 26ft long – roughly the length of a bus.

An object the size of the bus identified hurtling towards Earth last month and thought to be an asteroid could actually be part of the Atlas Centaur 7 upper rocket stage (pictured on the launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Florida) which propelled NASA’s Surveyor 2 to the moon in 1966

It was initially thought to be an asteroid and was given the name ‘asteroid 2020 SO’, but it is now believed to be part of a Centaur rocket that propelled America’s Surveyor 2 lander to the Moon 54 years ago. 

After releasing its payload, the rocket swept past the Moon and went into orbit around the Sun. 

The lander, meanwhile, ended up crashing into the Moon after one of its thrusters failed to ignite.

After releasing its payload, the rocket swept past the Moon and went into orbit around the Sun

After releasing its payload, the rocket swept past the Moon and went into orbit around the Sun

Nasa’s asteroid expert Paul Chodas said: ‘I’m pretty jazzed about this. 

‘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. 

‘I could be wrong on this. I don’t want to appear overly confident. 

‘But it’s the first time, in my view, that all the pieces fit together with an actual known launch.’

Mr Chodas, director of the Centre for Near-Earth Object Studies at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said the object had a near-circular orbit around the Sun, which is unusual for an asteroid.

It is also in the same plane as Earth, not tilted above or below, and is approaching at 1,500mph – slow by asteroid standards.

He predicts it will spend four months circling in the Earth’s orbit from mid-November. 

It will then shoot out into its own orbit around the sun next March. 

Mr Chodas said he doubted the object will slam into Earth, adding: ‘At least, not this time around.’

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