Mysterious object that could be 1960s rocket booster will fly past Earth today: how to view it

Known as 2020 SO, the object is believed to be a part of a rocket booster from the Surveyor 2 spacecraft

Look up in the sky — it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s … space junk?

A mysterious space object that has been captured by Earth’s orbit and is widely believed to be a rocket booster from the 1960s is now viewable to skygazers as it gets closer to the planet.

Known as 2020 SO, the object is believed to be a part of a Centaur rocket booster from the Surveyor 2 spacecraft, NASA said in November, though that has not been confirmed. 

This 1964 photograph shows a Centaur upper-stage rocket before being mated to an Atlas booster. A similar Centaur was used during the launch of Surveyor 2 two years later. Credits: NASA

This 1964 photograph shows a Centaur upper-stage rocket before being mated to an Atlas booster. A similar Centaur was used during the launch of Surveyor 2 two years later. Credits: NASA

The Virtual Telescope Project is live-streaming the flyby of the newly-minted Earth satellite. It is slated to have its closest brush with our planet, when 2020 SO will come within 50,000 kilometers (31,000 miles) of Earth on Dec. 1, VTP founder Gianluca Masi wrote on the project’s website

NASA has posted a video of 2020 SO’s looping orbits around the Earth.https://www.youtube.com/embed/v-v2w0wq40I

This flyby will allow astronomers to determine whether it is indeed part of the Centaur upper stage rocket booster that lifted Surveyor 2, or something else. 

“The near-Earth object 2020 SO, discovered by the Pan-STARRS survey on 17 Sept. 2020 and announced two days later by the Minor Planet Center, has an estimated diameter in the range 4.5 – 10 meters (source: Nasa/JPL),” Masi added. “We are not sure it is an asteroid (that is, a natural body), as it could be the rocket booster of the Surveyor 2 Nasa mission, dating back to 1966. Furthermore, from 8 Nov. 2020 to March 2021, it will be a temporary satellite of our home planet.” 

Whether 2020 SO is man-made or an asteroid, its orbit around the sun is very similar to Earth, making NASA believe it likely is indeed a part of the Surveyor 2, which launched toward the moon in 1966.

“One of the possible paths for 2020 SO brought the object very close to Earth and the Moon in late September 1966,” Center for Near-Earth Object Studies Director Paul Chodas said in a November statement. “It was like a eureka moment when a quick check of launch dates for lunar missions showed a match with the Surveyor 2 mission.”

Unfortunately, the Surveyor 2 never completed its journey, crashing on the lunar surface on Sept. 23, 1966. However, the Centaur booster “sailed past the Moon and disappeared into an unknown orbit about the Sun,” NASA added.

2020 SO initially “slowly drifted” into Earth’s Hill sphere on Nov. 8, 2020, and will remain there for roughly four months before it goes back into orbit around the sun in March 2021.