A relic of the 1960s Space Race may be paying Earth a brief visit with NASA announcing that a rocket booster from the 1966 Surveyor 2 robotic Moon lander mission is suspected to have returned from deep space and taken up temporary orbit around the Earth.
While the space agencies like to keep an eye on where their deep-space probes are even after they’ve gone inactive, they’re not as interested in what happens to the rockets that launched those probes into space. So long as they burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere, crash into the ocean, or fly off into the depths of space and don’t pose a hazard, they’re just expendable hardware.
That is, until they do something unexpected. On September 20, 1966, NASA launched the Surveyor 2 lander toward the Moon in the hope that it would be the second US successful soft landing on the lunar surface after Surveyor 1. The Atlas Centaur booster worked as planned, putting the spacecraft right where it should have been over Sinus Medii, but a thruster malfunction threw the lander into a hopeless tumble and it crashed near Copernicus crater.
Meanwhile, the Centaur rocket upper stage flew past the Moon as planned and went into orbit around the Sun. That should have been the end to the story, but in September 2020, the NASA-funded Pan-STARRS1 survey telescope on the island of Maui in Hawaii picked up an object moving in an arc in the sky, which indicated that it was near the Earth.