Thursday, January 14, 2010

Unknown Objects Spotted in Space Near Earth

Did you know that on January 13, 2010, a small unknown object thought to be space junk, or an asteroid, streaked past the Earth from only 130,000 kilometers (left)? It was discovered only two days before its close encounter and was called 2010 AL30 (top). Although it didn't hit, astronomers said it wouldn't have caused any damage at all since it is only 10 meters wide.

2010 AL30 was as bright as a tenth magnitude star and was like how Pluto would have appeared from the Earth. Strangely, it's orbit period is exactly the same as the Earth's at one year. This led to speculation that it may be space junk left over from a spacecraft launched in the past, like from an Apollo lunar mission.

Senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute, says 2010 AL30 is more likely a natural object because it does not follow any useful spacecraft launch trajectory. The NASA Near-Earth Object (NEO) Program Office suggested that its steep, eccentric orbit made it more likely it was just a near-Earth object (asteroid). Michel Khan, analyst at the European Space Agency (ESA), on the other hand, said it may have been the upper stage of the Russian Soyuz rocket used to launch the Venus Express Spacecraft in 2005.

Earth is no stranger to unknown objects whizzing by. Did you know that in 2002, a strange, elongated, tumbling object was spotted orbiting the Earth (left)? Called J002E3, it's 60 feet long and rotates every minute. At only magnitude 16, it was very dim but was still discovered by Bill Yeung, an amateur astronomer. Scans of the sky never showed it before and it's assumed that it only entered the orbit around the Earth prior to it's discovery.

J002E3's orbit was described then as chaotic by Paul Chodas of NEO. It goes around Earth once every 48 days or so, coming as close to our planet as the Moon and moving as far away as twice that distance. CHodes retraced it's orbital history and determined that it could have originated from Earth in 1971, so he speculated it was the 60-ft S-IVB fuel tank of the Apollo 14 lunar rocket. The problem was all the parts of that mission were accounted for.

Then, it occurred to Chodas that J002E3 could be the tank of Apollo 12 Saturn 5 rocket (left) that was jettisoned Nov. 15, 1969 after it ran out of fuel. Ground controllers switched the tanks engine on and it was supposed to be sent to an orbit around the Sun. But a mistake happened and the fuel burned for too long, sending it instead in an orbit that closely matches that of J002E3. Is J002E3, the fuel tank of the Apollo 12? It's anyone's guess. But, spectral analysis of the J002E3 showed that it has titanium dioxide paint - exactly what was used on the Saturn V rocket 40 years ago as of this writing! Click on the images for more info on the unknown NEO objects here.

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