Newly Spotted Minimoon Might Turn Out to be Something Else: Astronomers Explain

minimoon discovery

Now and then, a smaller space object gets captured in Earth’s orbit for a short period. These objects are known as minimoons. So far, we’ve captured only two, 2006 RH120 and 2020 CD3. 

Recently, astronomers have observed a new object, called 2020 SO, on an oncoming trajectory that we might see it temporarily captured by our planet’s gravity. Here is what you need to know.

Possible New Minimoon

The recently spotted object is quite intriguing. Its Earth-like orbit and low velocity indicate that it’s not an asteroid. According to astronomers, the object’s characteristics are more consistent with something human-made.

2020 SO has been rated as an Apollo asteroid in the JPL Small-Body Database – asteroid category whose paths cross our planet’s orbit. This category of asteroid sometimes has near-Earth rendezvous. But there are some clues that 2020 SO is not like the others. 

Why is So Special 2020 SO?

2020 SO is on an orbit that’s only a bit over a year, and on a shallow inclination to Earth’s orbit. Its eccentricity is just a little higher than Earth’s, and its velocity is much lower than the speed of an Apollo asteroid. 2020 SO is even slower than Moon rocks. So, what makes it so special?

According to Paul Chodas of JPL, 2020 SO is just space junk, the discarded Centaur stage of a rocket launched back in 1966. Could this be the true nature of 2020 SO?

Reusable rockets are a recent invention. The widely utilized solution for decades was to send multi-stage rockets developed to fall apart. So, the booster stage returns to Earth for reuse. And for the rest of the rocket carrying the payload is discarded in space once its work is done. These discarded stages represent a lot of space junk.

A 1960s Project

2020 SO matches a lot the characteristics of the 1960s-era Centaur stage. According to the official NASA CNEOS database, the object measures between 6.4 and 14 meters long. A Centaur stage is 12.68 meters. 

If 2020 SO is really that 1966 Centaur stage, that means it’s been out in space for 54 years – a human developed spacecraft enduring the void for so many decades. Astronomers will be able to observe the object better when this will pass by on December 1, then again on February 2, 2021.

Space archaeologist, Alice Gorman of Flinders University in Australia, explained: “It would be interesting to do some reflectance spectroscopy, which would show how rough the surfaces are, how much it’s been pitted and decayed from being bombarded by dust and micrometeorites.”

Whatever 2020 SO turns out to be, we’ll have to wait and see for more details. 

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