CNEOS Director Paul Chodas tracked the object’s orbit backward. He discovered 2020 SO had come somewhat close to Earth a few times over the decades. In 1966, it looked a lot like it originated from Earth.
A failed mission returns to Earth 50 years later
Chodas now believes that 2020 SO is actually the Atlas-Centaur rocket, which launched the Surveyor 2 lunar lander. The uncrewed mission took off headed to the Moon on Sept. 20, 1966.
After lift-off, Surveyor 2 separated from the Atlas-Centaur upper-stage booster normally. But NASA lost control of the spacecraft when one of its thrusters didn’t ignite. On September 23, 1966, the lander crashed into the Moon near Copernicus crater.
In the meantime, the Centaur upper-stage rocket blasted right past the moon and began to orbit the sun.
This week was a close fly-by of 2020 SO (or the Atlas-Centaur) but it won’t be the last time it gets close to us. On Feb. 2 it will pass close by again. Then the hollow rocket will leave our orbit again in March 2021.