Rocket booster since 1966 returns to Earth orbit and orbits our planet ‘for a few weeks’

During a 1966 mission to the moon, a rocket booster flew through the abyss of space, caught by the Earth’s gravity and orbited our planet for ‘a few weeks’.

NASA launched the Unmanned Surveyor 2 probe to the moon in 1966, but the spacecraft lost control in mid-flight and NASA eventually lost contact.

Now Centaur, the upper-level rocket booster that helped lift the worst spacecraft out of Earth has been captured by our planet from orbit around the sun.

It is expected to become a temporary satellite for the next few weeks or months until it escapes Earth’s gravity and returns to solar orbit.

During a 1966 mission to the moon, a rocket booster flew into the abyss of space, caught by the Earth’s gravitational pull and orbited our planet for ‘a few weeks’.

NASA introduced Surveyor 2 to the moon in 1966, but the spacecraft lost control in mid-flight and NASA eventually lost contact.

NASA introduced Surveyor 2 to the moon in 1966, but the spacecraft lost control in mid-flight and NASA eventually lost contact.

This small object was discovered by astronomers in September with the NASA-funded Bon-StarRS1 survey telescope.

They found it following a small but clearly curved path in the sky – a sign of its proximity to Earth – which was originally thought to be an asteroid.

Surveyor 2: IL-FAITED LUNAR LANDER lost its way

Surveyor 2 should be the second lunar lander introduced by NASA as part of the U.S. Surveyor program to explore the moon.

Surveyor 2 failed a mid-correction, resulting in the spacecraft losing control

Surveyor 2 failed a mid-correction, resulting in the spacecraft losing control

It was launched in September 1966 from Cape Kennedy, Florida on an Atlas-Centaur rocket.

1966 was a job for lunar missions – the USSR spacecraft Luna 9 became the first person to make a smooth landing on the moon and send photos.

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Surveyor 1 landed in May and became the first American spacecraft to send photos.

Surveyor 2 had to do the same thing in September – but from a different site – but it crashed.

Surveyor 2 failed a mid-correction, resulting in the spacecraft losing control.

Communication was lost on September 22, two days after the first launch.

During the correction maneuver in the middle an impulse fails to ignite – thus it becomes unbalanced and falls for 54 hours.

It collided near the Copernicus crater on the lunar surface on September 23 – three days after launch.

When the Minor Planet Center in Massachusetts, Cambridge was first discovered, it was named 2020 SO – an asteroid with a fixed position.

However, scientists at the Near-Earth Material Research Center at NASA JBL in Southern California looked at the orbit, suspecting it was very different.

After further observations, JBL researchers realized that this was the rocket booster they had spent in the early years of space racing.

The Surveyor 2 lunar lander was launched to the moon on September 20, 1966 on an Atlas-Centar rocket.

The mission is designed to reconsider the lunar surface ahead of the Apollo missions that led to the first group lunar landing in 1969.

Shortly after the lift-off was done, Surveyor 2 aimed from its center over-level booster. But a day later the spacecraft lost control and one of its propulsions failed to ignite, throwing it into a vortex.

On September 23, 1966, the spacecraft crashed into the moon southeast of the Copernican Gorge. The spent Centaur top-level rocket, meanwhile, crossed the moon and disappeared into orbit unknown to the sun.

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Suspecting 2020 SO to be a remnant of an old lunar mission, CNOS director Paul Sodas ‘turned the clock’ and ran backwards to orbit the object to determine where it had been in the past.

Sodas found that 2020 SO had been somewhat closer to Earth for decades, but the approach of 2020 SO in late 1966, according to his analysis, would have been as close as it could have appeared from Earth.

NASA JBL said that most meteorites come with a much longer and named orbit than Earth’s orbit – but it was actually similar to Earth’s orbit.

It was at the same distance from the Earth as the Sun and had a circular orbit, it was in an orbital plane, it was almost aligned with the Earth.

An asteroid is very unusual, but something you can expect from a satellite.

The pressure exerted by sunlight is small but continuous, and it has a greater impact on a hollow object than a solid one.

The spent rocket is basically an empty tube, so it is a low density material with a large surface area.

So it will be pushed around by solar radiation pressure rather than solid, high-density rocks – more like a small rock, like plain soda.

‘Solar radiation pressure is a non-gravitational force that is caused by photons of light emitted by the sun hitting a natural or synthetic object,’ said David Barnochia, JPL’s navigation engineer.

‘The resulting acceleration of an object depends on the so-called area-to-mass ratio, which is higher for smaller and lighter, lower-density objects.’

Therefore, with the knowledge of new measurements and the way sunlight pushes its path, the team realized that this may be a remnant of the early space age.

“One of the possible paths for the 2020 SO was to bring the Earth and the Moon very close in late September 1966,” Sodas said.

‘It was like a Eureka moment, quickly checking start dates for lunar missions and showing a match with Surveyor 2’s mission.’

Now, in 2020, Centaur seems to have returned to Earth for a brief visit.

Now Centaur, the upper-level rocket booster that helped lift the worst spacecraft from Earth has been captured by our planet from orbit around the Sun.

Now Centaur, the upper-level rocket booster that helped lift the worst spacecraft from Earth has been captured by our planet from orbit around the Sun.

On November 8, 2020, it moved into the Earth’s gravitational sphere, known as the Hill Sphere, which extends about 930,000 miles from our planet.

2020 SO will be about four months before escaping a new orbit around the sun in March 2021.

Before it takes off, 2020 SO will create two large loops around our planet, with its closest approach on December 1st.

During this period, astronomers will take a closer look and study its structure using spectroscopy to confirm that the 2020 SO is actually an artifact from space racing.

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Cary Douglas

About the Author: Cary Douglas

Wayne Ma is a reporter who covers everything from oil trading to China's biggest conglomerates and technology companies. Originally from Chicago, he is a graduate of New York University's business and economic reporting program.

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