Artificial 'Mini-Moon' Set To Fly Very Close to Earth Before Saying Farewell

An artificial "mini-moon" is set to fly "very close" to Earth before leaving our planet's orbit, astronomers say.

The mini-moon, dubbed 2020 SO, is actually a 1960s-era piece of space junk that was temporarily captured by the Earth's orbit.

The object was first spotted on September 17, 2020, by the 71-inch Pan-STARRS1 telescope atop Mount Haleakala on the island of Maui, Hawaii.

Soon after its discovery, astronomers began to speculate that the object was artificial due to its unusual characteristics. Researchers subsequently determined that it was in fact the upper stage from an Atlas-Centaur rocket launched in 1966 as part of NASA's failed Surveyor 2 lunar mission.

On December 1, 2020 SO made an "extremely close" approach to Earth, astronomer Gianluca Masi from the Virtual Telescope Project previously told Newsweek, coming within 31,605 miles of our planet—equivalent to around 13 percent of the average Earth-moon distance.

On February 1, the object will make another very close approach—albeit slightly further than the last one, coming within around 139,500 miles of our planet. It will be a mini-moon of our planet until March when it will leave our planet's gravitational grasp, according to Masi.

"After its extremely close fly-by last December, 2020 SO is safely coming very close again, this time to say farewell," Masi wrote on the Virtual Telescope Project (VTP) website.

"As we know, it is the booster of the Surveyor 2 space mission, which was temporarily captured by our planet. Soon, this artificial mini-moon will leave our neighborhood, escaping into a new orbit around the sun."

If you would like to watch the object, which is estimated to measure around 33 feet long, as it makes its final close approach, Masi will be hosting a live stream of the event on the VTP website beginning at 3 p.m. ET on February 1.

The Surveyor 2 mission launched on September 20, 1966, with the aim of studying the lunar surface. But technical problems led to mission control losing control of the lunar lander, which eventually crashed into the moon. The rocket stage, meanwhile, continued floating in space, entering into an orbit around the sun.

On November 8, 2020 SO was captured by Earth's gravity and calculations show it will remain in orbit around our planet as a temporary satellite until March 7, 2021 before it escapes back into a new orbit around the sun.

The Earth from space
Stock image of the Earth from space. iStock