On September 3, 2002, beginner astronomer Invoice Yeung identified an object that he believed was a in no way-right before-found asteroid in a rapid orbit about Earth. Even though it is straightforward for large planets these as Jupiter to often seize objects like asteroids and comets, Earth is smaller and has a lot less gravitational oomph with which to impact interplanetary passersby.

Yeung’s discovery, formally named J002E3, turned the emphasis of an extreme examination with a distinctive end result. The object was not an asteroid captured by Earth in a cosmic video game of coincidence. This was a relic of humanity’s house race: an Apollo-period rocket that had been put in orbit about the solar — and then returned to Earth.

An Unconventional Discovery

Yeung was now properly recognized in astronomy circles for his prolific discovery of other asteroids — J002E3 was simply just 1 extra to increase to his assortment. But astronomers at the Small World Middle speedily recognized that J002E3 was not an asteroid. Its strange orbit designed some suspect that it was, in actuality, human-designed — a leftover piece of house components.

But an examination of new launches did not discover any attainable candidates for the supply of the object. Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, tracing back again the object’s trajectory, identified that it had been captured in April 2002 into Earth orbit from an orbit about the solar that was comparable to Earth’s. Backtracking even more, the object appeared to have gotten into its solar-circling orbit following at first escaping Earth orbit all the way back again in February 1971.

This gave researchers some prospective clues as to the origin of J002E3.

Covered in Paint? 

An additional team of researchers from the University of Arizona and MIT performed a spectroscopic examination of J002E3, on the lookout at the light-weight it mirrored to research for chemical fingerprints to figure out what it was designed of. They designed a startling discovery: J002E3 appeared to be protected in paint — precisely, white, titaniumoxide (TiO2) paint. In accordance to Kira Jorgensen Abercromby at California Polytechnic Point out University, who also researched J002E3 when at the Air Force Maui Optical & Supercomputing observatory, “What we observed ended up characteristics in the spectral data that matched other higher-stage rocket bodies released all through a comparable time frame [to the Apollo missions] and the data also matched usual characteristics uncovered in organic paints that seemed like TiO2.”

This facts pointed towards a very precise object as the identity of J002E3: a put in third stage from an Apollo-period Saturn V rocket, which ended up historically protected in this precise variety of paint.

The large Saturn V propelled the Apollo astronauts to the moon and later on lofted the Skylab Place Station into orbit about Earth. Even though eighteen comprehensive Saturn V rockets ended up created, only 13 ended up at any time released (the relaxation ended up created for testing or in no way made use of as soon as Apollo’s funding dried up). The Saturn V was a 3-stage rocket. The first and next levels of the Saturn V fell back again to Earth as soon as they ended up put in. The third stage, recognized as the S-IVB, was just under sixty ft (eighteen meters) in length and, as soon as introduced, quickly orbited Earth together with the Apollo spacecraft right before staying reignited to mail its components into lunar orbit. Of be aware, the Apollo seven mission made use of the smaller Saturn IB rocket, which also made use of an S-IVB as a next stage. In accordance to Amy Shira Teitel, host of YouTube’s The Classic Place, “Without the S-IVB, the Apollo moon landings couldn’t have occurred.”

Spacecraft Sleuthing

If J002E3 was, in actuality, a put in S-IVB, the upcoming dilemma researchers questioned was, “Which 1 was it?”

Early test flights with the S-IVB all ended with the third stage splashing into the ocean or disintegrating all through reentry. This was also legitimate for the S-IVBs from the Apollo 4, five, 6, and seven missions and the Saturn IB flights that carried astronauts to Skylab. The Apollo lunar landing missions numbered 13 through 17 all deliberately crashed their S-IVBs onto the lunar area to produce artificial moonquakes that could be measured by seismic instruments put by prior landings. But it was the center Apollo missions (numbered eight through 12), having said that, that all deliberately put their S-IVBs into heliocentric orbits. Any of these missions could have offered increase to J002E3.

Further examination of J002E3 instructed it first left Earth orbit in 1969, narrowing factors down to Apollo 9 through 12 (Apollo eight orbited the moon in December 1968).

This animation, which has the Solar to the left, reveals J002E3 staying captured into a chaotic orbit about the Earth. (Credit score: Paul Chodas and Ron Baalke)

Interestingly, when the S-IVB from Apollo 12 was intended to be put into a heliocentric orbit, this individual S-IVB in its place had ended up in a very distant orbit about Earth. This lent reliability to the plan that J002E3 could have come from Apollo 12, since researchers now understood that J002E3 had left Earth orbit in 1971. The other S-IVBs from Apollo 9, ten, and 11 ended up verified to be in heliocentric orbits. Hence, by course of action of elimination, J002E3 is practically unquestionably the S-IVB from Apollo 12.

Gone Yet again, But Not Misplaced

Many people come across the idea of discovering an intact piece of Apollo-period components appealing, and these inner thoughts are amplified by the massive dimensions of the Apollo S-IVB. “Flown Apollo components will usually be considerable,” claims Teitel. “We’ve been to the moon nine instances and most of the components that enabled people missions was ruined — the Saturn V levels crashed into the ocean or ended up smashed into the moon, most of the lunar module ascent levels ended up smashed into the moon, and the support modules did not return. That leaves nine command modules, all of which are on display in museums. Flown components has an allure simulators and non-flown products just don’t have.”

In the situation of J002E3, the components is nevertheless flying. Soon following its discovery, the object left Earth orbit in 2003, returning to a heliocentric orbit. But researchers recommend that it could yet be recaptured by our earth, with the first prospect for recapture coming up in the mid-2040s.