NASA identifies huge ‘asteroid’ as long lost rocket from failed moon landing

A mystery object headed towards Earth is believed to be an old rocket from a failed moon-landing mission 54 years ago.

NASA had previously thought 2020 SO may be an asteroid and even predicted that it would become Earth's "mini-Moon" from October until it leaves the planet's orbit next May.

But now NASA's leading asteroid expert, Dr Paul Chodas, has said 2020 SO is actually the Centaur upper rocket stage that successfully propelled NASA's Surveyor 2 lander to the moon in 1966 before it was discarded.

The lander ended up crashing into the moon after one of its thrusters failed to ignite on the way there.

The rocket, meanwhile, swept past the moon and into orbit around the sun as intended junk, never to be seen again — until perhaps now.

A telescope in Hawaii last month discovered the mystery object heading our way while doing a search intended to protect our planet from doomsday rocks.

But because the velocity of 2020 SO is much slower than any space rock, some suggested it could be something man-made rather than an asteroid.

The average space rock travels at a speed of anywhere between 11 kilometres per second and 72 kilometres per second.

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The object 2020 SO has a speed of just 0.6 kilometres per second.

It is estimated to be roughly eight metres long based on its brightness, which is a similar size to the old Centaur, which would be less than 10 metres long including its engine nozzle and three metres in diameter.

What caught Dr Chodas's attention is that its near-circular orbit around the sun is quite similar to Earth's — unusual for an asteroid.

The object is also in the same plane as Earth, not tilted above or below, while steroids usually zip by at odd angles.

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"I could be wrong on this. I don't want to appear overly confident," Dr Chodas said.

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

Asteroid hunter Carrie Nugent of Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts, said Dr Chodas's conclusion is "a good one" based on solid evidence.

She is the author of the 2017 book Asteroid Hunters.

"Some more data would be useful so we can know for sure," she said in an email.

"Asteroid hunters from around the world will continue to watch this object to get that data. I'm excited to see how this develops!"

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics' Jonathan McDowell noted there have been "many, many embarrassing incidents of objects in deep orbit … getting provisional asteroid designations for a few days before it was realised they were artificial".

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