First Confirmed Capture into Earth Orbit Is Likely Apollo Rocket
September 20, 2002
Apollo 12 on launchpad, November 1969
Near-Earth Object site
NASA scientists have confirmed the first known capture of an
object into Earth orbit from a Sun-centered orbit, thanks to
continuing observations of what is most likely the long-lost third
stage of a 1969 rocket to the Moon.
"Last week we didn't know for sure that it had been captured,
and now there's no doubt that it was captured in April of this year,"
said Dr. Paul Chodas of the Near-Earth Object Program Office at
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "What's more, we
are virtually certain that it originally escaped Earth orbit in March
1971 and that it will escape again next June. It's only a temporary
The object, named J002E3, was discovered Sept. 3 by Canadian
amateur astronomer Bill Yeung, observing from El Centro, Calif.
Increasingly precise orbital calculations made possible from a second
week of positional observations have nearly ruled out any chance the
object will hit the Moon or enter Earth's atmosphere before it
departs Earth orbit, Chodas said. Calculations made about a week
after the discovery left higher impact possibilities, but now the
chances of impact are less than 1 percent at either the Moon or
Earth, and a third week of observations will likely push the odds to
zero. The object is too small to be considered hazardous, in any
More than 100 measurements of the object's position have now
been reported from more than a dozen amateur astronomers, said JPL's
Dr. Steven Chesley. The two weeks of movement tracked by those
observations make up about a sixth of one orbit around Earth.
Scientists can extrapolate the object's path for years into the
future and years into the past from that short arc. "The observations
coming in are from a loosely organized network of dedicated amateur
observers. Their data have been vital in determining this object's
past and future paths," Chesley said.
The object escaped from Earth orbit in March 1971, Chodas
said. That fits its most likely identity as the third stage of the
Saturn rocket that took Apollo 12 astronauts to the Moon in November
1969. The 18-meter-long (60-foot-long) third stage was last seen in
an elongated 43-day orbit around Earth, not much different from
J002E3's current orbit. It probably completed nine or 10 Earth
orbits, then swung far enough toward the Sun to be pulled into a Sun-
centered orbit, he said. The transition happened through a
special "portal" located at the L1 Lagrangian point, where the
gravitational pulls of the Sun and Earth are approximately equal.
Analysis this week by researchers from the University of
Arizona, Tucson, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
Cambridge, suggests that J002E3's surface is white paint rather than
more asteroid-like material. If it is not from the Apollo 12 rocket,
some less likely possibilities are one of the four 7-meter-long (22-
foot-long) panels that enclosed lunar modules from six Apollo
missions or rocket stages from Soviet or U.S. unmanned lunar
missions. Those are less likely because they seem too small to match
the object's observed brightness, and they are not known to have been
left in orbits that could have escaped Earth. Additional observations
in coming weeks may pin down the identification.
After J002E3 escaped Earth's gravity in 1971, it raced Earth
in circles around the Sun, but it had an inner lane, so it completed
33 solar orbits in the time it took Earth to complete 31. In 1986,
the object lapped Earth on the inside, too far away to be snagged by
Earth's gravity. This year, it was about to lap Earth again but
passed too close to the L1 portal and Earth captured it.
The transition between Earth-centered dynamics and Sun-
centered dynamics has been understood theoretically for years and has
been used for designing orbits of some spacecraft, but this is the
first time a capture into Earth orbit has been confirmed, Chodas
said. Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which struck Jupiter in 1994, made this
kind of transition into Jupiter's orbit several decades earlier.
NASA's Genesis spacecraft, currently collecting samples of solar-wind
material near the L1 point, will use a similar maneuver for a low-
energy return to Earth with the samples in 2004.
Earth won't have seen the last of J002E3 when this peripatetic
bit of space junk escapes after its sixth orbit in mid-2003. It will
shift from solar orbit to Earth orbit again in decades ahead. "This
type of orbit can't last very long," Chodas said. "That's one reason
it would be very unlikely to find an asteroid with an orbit like
this." Within several thousand years, the object will likely end its
travels by hitting the Moon or Earth. That is not cause for concern,
though. Five rocket stages like the Apollo 12 third stage were
crashed into the Moon intentionally as part of seismic research, and
several others harmlessly disintegrated when they re-entered Earth's
Images of J002E3's calculated path are available at
JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in
Pasadena, manages the Near-Earth Object Program for NASA's Office of
Space Science, Washington, D.C.