Dang, What Was That? Astronomers Wonder What Just Whizzed by Earth

By Joseph Calamia | May 28, 2010 1:10 pm

Momma always said to pick up after yourself. Otherwise, you won’t know where your old pieces of junk will end up, and might end up confusing them with asteroids.

Astronomers have decided that a near-Earth object that passed by Earth last week is likely a rocket piece, a chunk of metal left behind in the darkness of space while some orbiter or NASA explorer zoomed off on an exciting mission.


Richard Kowalski at the Catalina Sky Survey discovered “2010 KQ,” a few-meter-wide something or other, headed for Earth on May 16. Tracked by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program, commonly called “Spaceguard,” the something made a relatively close pass to our planet (it was just a bit further out than the moon’s orbit) on May 21. Yesterday, NASA announced that the object was likely the upper-stage of a rocket.

Why the confusion? First, using spectral analysis, astronomers could see that the object’s makeup was not like any known asteroid. Second, the folks at NASA were suspicious of the object’s path, which looked a lot like our own planet’s orbit around the sun. Things that start moving with us, unless overcome by gravity or propelled by rockets, tend to want keep on going the same way.

“The orbit of this object is very similar to that of the Earth, and one would not expect an object to remain in this type of orbit for very long,” said Paul Chodas, a scientist at NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. [NASA]

This isn’t the first such asteroid identity crisis. Astronomers had a similar mix-up regarding 2010 AL30, which made a pass by Earth in January of this year. Scientists debated whether it was a piece of the Venus Express spacecraft, but decided to define it as a “Apollo class” asteroid. You can look at its orbit here.

Astronomers expect for 2010 KQ to visit our neighborhood again in 2036, but there is only a six percent chance that it will actually hit us. Even if it does, it will completely burn up in our atmosphere/trash incinerator.

Related content:
Bad Astronomy: A piece of asteroid falls to Earth in June, but in a good way
Bad Astronomy: 100 meter asteroid will pass Earth Monday!
Bad Astronomy: BAsteroid
80beats: Experts Declare War on Space Junk… So What Do We Do Now?
DISCOVER: The Asteroid Hunters

Image:  NASA/JPL

  • http://skeptoid.com/ Brian Dunning

    Sounds like the scientists are baffled.

  • http://www.ggbnet.com TexasOdysseyCoach (Gene)

    the moon needed that close shave… it was getting a bit hairy. ;=)

  • meierrain

    What would cause the object’s path to change around July 1? It doesn’t look to me like that path is similar to our orbit. (This could be a really stupid question, but, hey, i’m in the soft sciences).

  • Becca Stareyes

    meierrain, the diagram looks to be one drawn co-rotating with the Earth, which means the Sun is fixed (let’s say at 0,0), but the Earth is also fixed (let’s say on the positive X-axis), and the asteroid’s position is drawn based on it’s distance from the Sun and the angle it makes with the Earth. So those are normal polar coordinates, except orbits near the Earth usually don’t look like normal orbits — for example, things orbiting near the Earth-Sun L4 and L5 point make little tadpole shapes around points 60 degrees before and behind the Earth, while, if we plotted them normally, we’d just see two orbits (the asteroid and the Earth) that looked nearly the same. Plots like these are nice to show when objects are interacting with the Earth, which is probably what happened on the July point.

  • Floridaguy

    I didnt think anyone would believe me but I witnessed an event that night which last appox one minute.

    In the black clear sky to the north east facing direction, from Central Florida.

    I saw a bright light appear in a streak (like a light being cut out of the darkness like a sword slice) extremley fast.

    Now I then saw the object appear close to the original streak and travelling west.

    I followed it as it appeared to skim the atmosphere.

    This is the brightest light Ive ever seen in the night sky, and I look up ALOT!

  • Paul

    No doubt a probe from a Romulan Warbird.

    And I hope you keep into mind what Stephen Hawking said about extra terrestrials and ‘friendly’ visits. Last time ‘aliens’ visited an backwater place that was well behind in technology was, oh, 1600’s. You know when Europeans found the American Indian. See how that turned out?

    Anyway, sleep tight. It can’t get any worse than what was shown on ‘Independence Day’, right?

  • P. Aaron

    The rock band DEVO wrote a song about this on their 1st album in 1977 appropriately titled: Space Junk.

    Even laymen rockers can sometimes appear prophetic.

  • Gort

    Odd trajectory, retrograde even. Maybe we’re about to be treated to a visitation.

  • http://spacewhatnow.com Tom Hill


    You probably saw an Iridium flare. They’re extremely localized (but predictable) and can achieve brightnesses of -8:


  • http://threebeerslater.blogspot.com richard mcenroe

    John Ringo and Travis Taylor were right! Von Neumann’s War has begun! Head for the abandoned mine shafts!

  • Mark Jones

    Paul–no worse than Independence Day? Clearly you’ve never read “The Screwfly Solution” by James Tiptree, Jr.

    Or hostile aliens could just throw rocks at us (like Deep Impact, only on purpose).

    Coming down to earth and fighting us is about the dumbest way to kill us off.

  • RL

    Of course, if the aliens are of the Predator or Klingon variety it may be more sporting or honorable to hunt/fight us one-by-one!

  • ben

    @meierrain: Bruce Willis

  • Robin Juhl

    Try “Footfall” by Niven & Pournelle. Go Michael!

  • Steve

    The Apollo program left several objects in “heliocentric orbit”. That is, they were orbiting the sun at approximately the same distance as the earth, but not orbiting the earth itself. Most of those were the third stages of the Saturn moon rockets. But at least one was something more interesting.

    Apollo 10 was a “dress rehearsal” for the moon landing. The LM separated from the CSM in lunar orbit, descended to a lower orbit, then climbed back up and docked again with the CSM. The astronauts transferred back to the CSM, separated from the unmanned LM, and flew back to earth. At that point, Mission Control ran some remote-controlled tests on the LM engines, tests that were too dangerous to do with people on board. At the end of those tests, the Apollo 10 ascent stage was in “heliocentric orbit”. One of the mission controllers asked when it would swing back by the earth, and the orbits guys answered, “about 20 years.”

    It’s been about 40 years since Apollo 10. Maybe the thing we just saw was the Apollo 10 LM on its second pass.

  • satan

    we never went to the moon.

  • amphiox

    no worse than Independence Day? Clearly you’ve never read “The Screwfly Solution” by James Tiptree, Jr.

    Or “The Forge of God” by Greg Bear. Among others.

  • http://serobot.org/about Goldie Pittsinger

    Stephen Hawking vs Religion – You're both wrong. Or, you’re both right. Or one of you is wrong or right. Now, that's the end of it.

  • turk

    So funny they watch near earth objects, but have no clue what it is.. The result being their saying … umm, duh, duh, duh, ummm, uuumm it was probably the uper stage of a rocket… they know so much but they know nothing ?? Is that what’s being said ? LOL


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