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Newfound 'moon' could be Apollo rocket junk

An earlier Saturn 5 third-stage, seen from the Apollo 8 spacecraft shortly after separation near the moon in 1968
An earlier Saturn 5 third-stage, seen from the Apollo 8 spacecraft shortly after separation near the moon in 1968  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- An object recently detected in a chaotic Earth orbit is possibly a section from one the largest rockets ever built, a NASA monster taller than a football field that carried men to the moon, scientists said.

When amateur astronomer Bill Yeung from Arizona spotted the object last week, space enthusiasts speculated that it might be a natural Earth satellite.

The reason, the mysterious rambler travels in a jumbled ellipse around the Earth that reaches far beyond the moon, suggesting our planet's gravity captured a wandering space rock.

But calculations by the Minor Planet Center in Massachusetts, a clearinghouse for minor planet and comet discoveries, "immediately led astronomers to suspect the object is actually a spacecraft or rocket body, not an asteroid," said NASA's Paul Chodas in a statement on Wednesday.

There was one caveat. Chodas, a research scientist with the space agency's Near Earth Program Office in California, which monitors potentially hazardous space boulders, noted that the object "could not be associated with any recent launch."

Dubbed J002E3, the enigma could be the third-stage of a Saturn V rocket, which took Apollo astronauts to the moon from 1969 to 1972, Chodas said.

If so, why did the big scrap of metal remain undetected for so long? It probably escaped Earth's gravitational influence for years, according to NASA.

Watch how Earth captured J002E3 and shaped its current chaotic orbit   (Courtesy NASA)

"J002E3 is the first known case of an object being captured by the Earth," Chodas said.

NASA astronomers theorize that J002E3 drifted into orbit around the sun, then fell back under our planet's gravitational spell earlier this year, having passed through one of numerous LaGrange points, or "portals" in space where the sun's gravity and that of the Earth cancel the other out.

"Jupiter has been known to capture comets via the same mechanism," said Choda, giving the example of Shoemaker-Levy, which broke up and collided in spectacular fashion in the giant planet in 1994.

Circumstantial evidence, including reflective brightness, suggests that the object came from the Apollo 12 mission, which flew to the moon in November 1969.

The object could make another mark in astronomy. Orbiting Earth roughly once every 43 days, it has a 20 percent chance of striking the moon in 2003 and a 2 percent chance of hitting the Earth within the decade.

"This should not be of concern to the public. Apollo stages have impacted the Earth before," Choda said.




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