A piece of vintage NASA space junk from a 1966 moon mission just whizzed by Earth

A misunderstood piece of space junk whizzed by Earth Tuesday (Dec. 1), but don't worry, it's just part of an old moon mission's rocket.

The object, nicknamed 2020 SO, was once thought to be an asteroid. But after its (re)discovery by the PAN-STARRS survey telescope, astronomers realized the mystery object's orbit didn't make sense for a rocky or icy world.

"We followed it quite a bit for the very first few days, once there was a possibility for it to be natural," Marco Michelli, an astronomer at the European Space Agency's Near-Earth Object Coordination Centre, said in a statement.

But after a couple of weeks measuring its position, Michelli and his team realized the object had to be artificial. It was showing a lot of changes in its orbit due to the ongoing pressure of the solar wind, which sends particles streaming across the solar system. "It was too light to have formed naturally."

Astronomers eventually concluded the orbit matched the upper stage of the rocket for NASA's failed Surveyor 2 lander that was supposed to land on the moon in 1966.  However, the mission failed after the rocket overshot the moon, and the rocket drifted into orbit around the sun.

Related: The strange story of 2020 SO: How an asteroid turned into rocket junk and the NASA scientist who figured it out

This image released by the European Space Agency shows a view of the  object 2020 SO (moving dot) in the night sky as seen from a telescope. Once thought to be an asteroid, 2020 SO is actually a spent booster from NASA's Surveyor 2 moon mission launch in 1966. (Image credit: ESA)

So why did the rocket show up now? The theory is the rocket was temporarily caught in Earth's gravity and will soon fly away from our planet again.

In the ongoing search for near-Earth asteroids, the rocket shows a bit of a blind spot in the zones where telescope surveys typically search, another ESA official added. 

"In some ways it has been and is hiding in the boundary between near-Earth object and space debris searches, a search region where there are very few objects distributed over a large volume of space" Tim Flohrer, head of ESA's space debris office, said in the same statement.

"The life of this rocket part so far has similarities to an object called WT1190F, a small temporary satellite of Earth thought to be debris from the 1998 Lunar Prospector mission, that impacted in 2015. It is still to be assessed if this newly rediscovered object could return and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere one day."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace