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How to see a mysterious object that might be space junk fly near Earth today

NASA rocket booster? Asteroid? A small object known as 2020 SO will pass close to Earth and you can watch it live starting Monday, Nov. 30.

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This photo from 1964 shows a Centaur upper-stage rocket. Space object 2020 SO might be one of these.

NASA

The moon shouldn't feel too jealous. Earth has another satellite right now, but it's only a temporary fling. The exact identity of the object, named 2020 SO, is still a lingering question, but you can watch it on Monday, Nov. 30, when it gets close to Earth. The Virtual Telescope Project will livestream the flyby.  

The Earth's gravitational pull captured the object into our planet's orbit earlier this month, which makes 2020 SO a sort of mini-moon. 

Usually, we'd expect an object like this to be an asteroid, and there are plenty of those flying around in space. But 2020 SO may have a more Earthly identity. The orbit of 2020 SO around the sun -- which is very similar to Earth's -- has convinced researchers it's probably not a rock, but is actually a piece of space junk from a NASA mission.      

The object's closest approach to our planet will be on Dec. 1. The Virtual Telescope Project will offer a livestream starting at 2 p.m. PT on Nov. 30

Virtual Telescope Project founder Gianluca Masi already managed to capture a view of the tiny object on Nov. 22. It appears as a dot against a backdrop of stars.

The Virtual Telescope Project caught sight of 2020 SO on Nov. 22. The arrow points out the object.

Gianluca Masi/Virtual Telescope Project

Scientists with NASA JPL's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) analyzed 2020 SO's path and tracked it back in time.  

"One of the possible paths for 2020 SO brought the object very close to Earth and the Moon in late September 1966," CNEOS Director Paul Chodas said in a NASA statement earlier in November. "It was like a eureka moment when a quick check of launch dates for lunar missions showed a match with the Surveyor 2 mission."

NASA's ill-fated Surveyor 2 lander ended up crashing on the moon's surface, but the Centaur rocket booster escaped into space.   

NASA expects 2020 SO to stick around in an Earth orbit until March 2021 when it will wander off into a new orbit around the sun. The agency's Planetary Defense Coordination Office shared a visual of the object's journey around Earth.

The upcoming close approach should give astronomers a chance to dial in 2020 SO's composition and tell us if it is indeed a relic from the 1960s.

Even with a telescope view, 2020 SO should look like a bright spot of light traveling against the dark of space. The cool thing is getting the chance to witness a piece of space history returning to its old stomping grounds.