Fake asteroid? NASA expert IDs mystery object as old rocket

Above, a Sept. 20, 1966 photo provided by the San Diego Air and Space Museum shows an Atlas Centaur 7 rocket on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, Florida. (Convair/General Dynamics Astronautics Atlas Negative Collection/San Diego Air and Space Museum via AP)
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Updated 11 October 2020

Fake asteroid? NASA expert IDs mystery object as old rocket

  • Asteroid 2020 SO could actually be the Centaur upper rocket stage that successfully propelled NASA’s Surveyor 2 lander to the moon in 1966

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida: The jig may be up for an “asteroid” that’s expected to get nabbed by Earth’s gravity and become a mini moon next month.
Instead of a cosmic rock, the newly discovered object appears to be an old rocket from a failed moon-landing mission 54 years ago that’s finally making its way back home, according to NASA’s leading asteroid expert. Observations should help nail its identity.
“I’m pretty jazzed about this,” Paul Chodas said. “It’s been a hobby of mine to find one of these and draw such a link, and I’ve been doing it for decades now.”
Chodas speculates that asteroid 2020 SO, as it is formally known, 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. The object promptly was added to the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center’s tally of asteroids and comets found in our solar system, just 5,000 shy of the 1-million mark.
The object is estimated to be roughly 8 meters based on its brightness. That’s in the ballpark of the old Centaur, which would be less than 10 meters long including its engine nozzle and 3 meters in diameter.
What caught Chodas’ attention is that its near-circular orbit around the sun is quite similar to Earth’s – unusual for an asteroid.
“Flag number one,” said Chodas, who is director of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
The object is also in the same plane as Earth, not tilted above or below, another red flag. Asteroids usually zip by at odd angles. Lastly, it’s approaching Earth at 2,400kph, slow by asteroid standards.
As the object gets closer, astronomers should be able to better chart its orbit and determine how much it’s pushed around by the radiation and thermal effects of sunlight. If it’s an old Centaur – essentially a light empty can – it will move differently than a heavy space rock less susceptible to outside forces.
That’s how astronomers normally differentiate between asteroids and space junk like abandoned rocket parts, since both appear merely as moving dots in the sky. There likely are dozens of fake asteroids out there, but their motions are too imprecise or jumbled to confirm their artificial identity, said Chodas.
Sometimes it’s the other way around.
A mystery object in 1991, for example, was determined by Chodas and others to be a regular asteroid rather than debris, even though its orbit around the sun resembled Earth’s.
Even more exciting, Chodas in 2002 found what he believes was the leftover Saturn V third stage from 1969′s Apollo 12, the second moon landing by NASA astronauts. He acknowledges the evidence was circumstantial, given the object’s chaotic one-year orbit around Earth. It never was designated as an asteroid, and left Earth’s orbit in 2003.
The latest object’s route is direct and much more stable, bolstering his theory.
“I could be wrong on this. I don’t want to appear overly confident,” Chodas said. “But it’s the first time, in my view, that all the pieces fit together with an actual known launch.”
And he’s happy to note that it’s a mission that he followed in 1966, as a teenager in Canada.
Asteroid hunter Carrie Nugent of Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts, said Chodas’ conclusion is “a good one” based on solid evidence. She’s 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 realized they were artificial.”
It’s seldom clear-cut.
Last year, a British amateur astronomer, Nick Howes, announced that an asteroid in solar orbit was likely the abandoned lunar module from NASA’s Apollo 10, a rehearsal for the Apollo 11 moon landing. While this object is likely artificial, Chodas and others are skeptical of the connection.
Skepticism is good, Howes wrote in an email. “It hopefully will lead to more observations when it’s next in our neck of the woods” in the late 2030s.
Chodas’ latest target of interest was passed by Earth in their respective laps around the sun in 1984 and 2002. But it was too dim to see from 8 million kilometers away, he said.
He predicts the object will spend about four months circling Earth once it’s captured in mid-November, before shooting back out into its own orbit around the sun next March.
Chodas doubts the object will slam into Earth – “at least not this time around.”


Tower of London ravens re-adapt to life after lockdown

Updated 19 October 2020

Tower of London ravens re-adapt to life after lockdown

  • The 1,000-year-old royal fortress was closed due to coronavirus lockdown restrictions
  • This raised fears the birds — known as the guardians of the Tower — would fly away to find another place

LONDON: Chris Skaife has one of the most important jobs in Britain. As Yeoman Warder Ravenmaster at the Tower of London, he is responsible for the country’s most famous birds.
According to legend firmly rooted in Britain’s collective imagination, if all the ravens were to leave the Tower, the kingdom would collapse and the country be plunged into chaos.
Coronavirus lockdown restrictions saw tourist attractions across the country close their doors, including the imposing 1,000-year-old royal fortress on the banks of the River Thames.
That left Skaife with an unprecedented challenge of how to entertain the celebrated avian residents, who suddenly found themselves with no one to play with — or rob food from.
It also raised fears the birds — known as the guardians of the Tower — would fly away to try to find tasty morsels elsewhere, and worse still, risk the legend coming to pass.
There are eight ravens in captivity in the Tower of London: Merlina, Poppy, Erin, Jubilee, Rocky, Harris, Gripp and George.
A royal decree, purportedly issued in the 17th century, stated there must be six on site at any one time but Skaife said he keeps two as “spares,” “just in case.”
They are free to roam the grounds but to prevent them from flying too far, their wings are trimmed back slightly.
Back in March when lockdown began, Skaife — who is in his 50s and a retired staff sergeant and former drum major in the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment — was furloughed.
But he still came to work to look after his majestic feathered charges, rotating feeding and caring duties with his three assistants.
“During that period of time, the ravens didn’t actually see anybody,” he told AFP.
“There were slight changes that I noticed. For instance, I had to keep them occupied without the public being there (and) there were less things for them to do.
“So I gave them enrichment toys that would help them enjoy their day.”
With no people around, he put balloons, ladders and even mirrors in their cages to keep them entertained, and hid food around the Tower grounds for them to find.
Breakfast time involves Skaife, in the distinctive black and red uniform of the “Beefeaters,” distributing a meal of chicks and mice, which the ravens cheerfully devour.
Skaife’s favorite is Merlina, he reveals with a smile.
She has become an Internet favorite from his frequent posts and videos of her on his Instagram and Twitter accounts, which have more than 120,000 followers.
Once feeding time is over, he opens the cages on the south lawn to allow them to stretch their wings.
The Tower reopened its doors on July 10 but the pandemic has had a devastating effect on visitor numbers.
Some 60,000 people visited the Tower every week in October 2019 but it is now only 6,000, according to Historic Royal Palaces, which manages the site.
During the three-month national lockdown, Skaife said the ravens were given more freedom to explore other parts of the Tower.
But to be doubly sure they didn’t fly off completely, their wings were clipped back further.
The birds are now kept in their cages more often to make sure they eat enough, as there are slim pickings from the Tower’s rubbish bins because of the reduced footfall.
“I don’t particularly like doing it,” said Skaife.
He says the ravens may be kept in cages but the Tower is their real home.
“So, I would never want to keep a raven in an enclosure.”
Now, as life returns to a semblance of normality, the ravens are re-adapting to seeing more humans again and their old routine.
Skaife has looked after the ravens for the last 14 years, tending to their needs out of clear affection but also out of a sense of historic and patriotic duty.
“Of course, we don’t want the legend to come true,” he said.