One cosmic rock a half-mile wide could change our planet forever, unless we spot it well-ahead of time.
An asteroid likely to get caught in Earth’s orbit and become a “mini moon” for several months may in fact not be an asteroid at all.
Dubbed 2020 SO, the object is on track to be pulled into Earth’s orbit in the coming weeks and circle the planet until it returns to its own track.
But instead of being space rock, experts think it is actually part of a rocket from a failed moon-landing mission in 1966.
“I’m pretty jazzed about this,” Paul Chodas, director of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told The Associated Press. “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.”
Mini moons – objects that temporarily orbit Earth – are rare. While more have likely occurred over history, only two have been confirmed: one from 2006 to 2007 and another discovered earlier this year that was in orbit from 2018 to 2020, according to space and astronomy news outlet Universe Today.
While those mini moons were space rocks, 2020 SO has a few characteristics that make scientists skeptical.
Its orbit is nearly a circle, similar to Earth’s, and is not tilted, on the same plane as Earth. The object is also moving much slower than scientists would expect a similar asteroid to move.
“The velocity seems to be a big one,” space archaeologist Alice Gorman of Flinders University in Australia told science news outlet ScienceAlert. “What I’m seeing is that it’s just moving too slowly, which reflects its initial velocity. That’s essentially a big giveaway.”
The object was discovered by a telescope in Hawaii