As the researchers at the Institute of Astronomy are scanning the night sky, something appears that completely bamboozles them. It’s an object passing through the heavens – worryingly close to Earth. Even more disturbingly, the experts have spotted this mysterious traveler with the Pan-STARRS1 telescope. This device is designed to detect space objects that could pose a risk to our planet. And unfortunately for all humankind, it appears this unidentified item may fit that bill.
But one man was on the case. A couple of days after the anomalous object was first spotted in September 2020, Paul Chodas, who’d been alerted by the Hawaiian observatory, set to work studying this enigmatic phenomenon. And if anyone could get to the bottom of it all, it would be Chodas. As the manager of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Chodas seriously knows his stuff.
At this point, though, the exact identity of the object remained anybody’s guess. Was it an asteroid or a random lump of space junk? How about an alien spaceship from another galaxy? Okay, that third option was, to say the least, a bit of a stretch. But it couldn’t be discounted entirely. At this early stage, scientists had no ready explanation for this unusual object in the night sky.
What was already emerging, however, was that this object was acting in ways not normally seen by your standard asteroid. That’s what Chodas noticed, anyway. Usually, an asteroid follows a path through space that is tilted in relation to the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. By contrast, this particular body was on the same plane as our planet’s path.
Another peculiarity was that 2020 SO, as the object came to be known, was not traveling through the heavens at the type of speed normally observed with asteroids. It was progressing at roughly 1,500mph – much slower than they normally zoom through space. So, Chodas was finding it less and less likely that this was actually an asteroid. But if that was true, then what exactly was this strange visitor?
That speed – or lack of it – was a clincher, as close passes of the Earth by asteroids are not unusual. Asteroids, in case you need reminding, are lumps of rock that may have traveled through space for millions or even billions of years. In fact, they’re what remains of the formation of the Solar System – the Sun and the planets – about 4.6 billion years ago. That’s pretty neat to think about.
And according to NASA, there are more than one million asteroids in the Solar System. But don’t be fooled by that impressively high number. If you took all of these bits of space rock and melded them together, you’d end up with a mass that only comes in at less than half the size of our Moon.
Where are most asteroids found? Generally, in a region lying between the planets Mars and Jupiter. And it’s fortunate that this belt is so far away. Here, you see, you can find the asteroid Vesta, which is a whopping 329 miles around. Good job it isn’t any nearer to Earth! But with that said, most asteroids usually span only around 30 feet or so. And when one of them enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it usually burns up to become a meteor.
But we should be more worried about meteorites, as they partially survive their descent through our atmosphere and strike the Earth. The best-known meteorite was the one that hit our planet roughly 66 million years ago, and the consequences of its impact ultimately led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.
So, although most meteors or meteorites are harmless, not all are. And that’s why the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies exists. You’ll remember that this agency’s boss, Chodas, was the man who recognized that 2020 OS did not seem like an ordinary asteroid. As you’ll recall, however, he wasn’t at all sure what it really was.
In any case, the organization Chodas heads has a very important mission. Staff at the agency keep an eye on the skies, and when they spot an asteroid they make an assessment of the object’s likely trajectory. Yep, if Earth is going to be struck by a dangerously large piece of space rock, it’s the Center for Near-Earth Objects Studies that will sound a warning.
But could there be another explanation for the object that the Hawaiian researchers spotted? Well, yes. Simply put, it could be space junk. According to the U.K.’s Natural History Museum in London, thousands of pieces of space debris have been left to orbit around the planet since humans first started looking to the skies.
Bits of launch rockets and even just fragments of paint are all traveling around in the atmosphere, along with what is said to be some 3,000 redundant satellites. And there are literally millions of smaller bits of trash traveling in circles, trapped by the planet’s gravitational pull.
Generally speaking, abandoned or lost pieces of equipment that are left at lower altitudes soon burn up in the atmosphere as they’re pulled towards Earth. However, pieces of junk at more than around 22,000 miles above the planet’s surface will remain in pointless orbit for centuries or even millennia. And, shockingly, there is a risk that new satellites may collide with old, dead ones – although it’s roughly a one in 10,000 chance.
Then, when India, the USA and China use these redundant satellites for missile target practice, another wrench is thrown into the works. You see, the resulting impact and explosion of one of these launches create thousands of bits of extra garbage. And while space junk might seem a fairly remote problem, it’s a real one. In 2020 alone, the International Space Station had to take evasive action on three occasions to avoid collisions with this detritus.
Plus, as you may already have assumed, this mysterious object sadly wasn’t an alien spaceship. So, what exactly was it? Well, the evidence began to point in one rather surprising direction. Chodas had already ruled out an asteroid, of course, because of the way this mass was orbiting around the Sun and the Earth.
Specifically, Chodas had discovered the unusual path 2020 SO was taking after using a computer simulation. But it was then that he had a bright idea. Why not try throwing the simulation into reverse in an attempt to work out the origin of the object? And as it happens, that’s just what he did.
In effect, Chodas was making 2020 SO travel back through time – and the results were startling. You see, this backward simulation showed that the object had been quite close to Earth back in 1966. In fact, as the scientist told The New York Times in December 2020, 2020 SO was “close enough that it could have originated from the Earth.”
With this incredible news in his back pocket, Chodas quickly went public. He emailed colleagues around the world with a message describing the hunch generated by his backward simulation. The gist of this theory? He believed the mystery object could actually once have been part of the NASA space vehicle Surveyor 2. And that seemed a real possibility, as the Surveyor 2 mission had gone spectacularly wrong.
This doomed launch had actually been part of NASA’s Surveyor series, with the first blast-off from Cape Canaveral being in May 1966. And the program had gotten off to a good start. Powered by an Atlas-Centaur rocket, the Surveyor 1 spacecraft made the first ever successful soft landing on the surface of the Moon. The purpose of the Surveyor missions was to scout out conditions on the Moon in preparation for the manned Apollo missions that would follow.
So, as Surveyor 1 had done its job well, NASA was apparently optimistic about its second Surveyor mission, which launched in September 1966. Like its predecessor – which had transmitted 11,000 images back to Earth – Surveyor 2 was tasked with beaming back photographs of the lunar terrain.
Mike Dinn had been the deputy director of the monitoring station in Tidbinbilla, Australia, that had tracked Surveyor 2 as it sped towards the Moon. And when speaking to The New York Times in December 2020, he recalled the positive mood that had surrounded that 1966 launch. Dinn claimed, “We fully expected Surveyor 2 to be a complete success.”
It’s true that Surveyor 2’s launch went smoothly. The one-ton spacecraft, like Surveyor 1, was blasted into space en route to an area of the Moon called Sinus Medii. But at a critical moment in the flight, something went very wrong with one of Surveyor 2’s three booster engines.
NASA’s plan was that the three thrusters would all fire for just under ten seconds during the journey to the Moon. This would correct the course of Surveyor 2, ensuring that it would land at the chosen destination. But while two of the jets ignited as planned, one remained dead. And, unfortunately, this failure pushed the ship into an uncontrolled tailspin.
Desperately trying to correct the malfunction, ground control at the mission center tried to fire up the uncooperative rocket no fewer than 39 times. But it was all to no avail. The spacecraft lost communication with Earth and began to freefall towards the Moon’s surface. And a NASA press release just after the event described what had happened next.
The somber message revealed, “For more than 24 hours, engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory attempted to correct an out-of-control tumbling condition which began during the midcourse trajectory correction [of Surveyor 2]… Early today, it also was apparent that the major objectives of the mission could not be met.” Ultimately, the stricken spacecraft crashed into the Moon’s surface, near the crater Copernicus.
Still, this catastrophe didn’t stop NASA from continuing with the Surveyor program. And, fortunately, of the seven launches, five all passed off without major incident. It all culminated in the Apollo 11 mission, which landed men on the Moon in 1969. This truly history-making feat was partly enabled by the information that the Surveyor spacecraft had previously collected.
Overall, the Surveyor program had proved more than worthwhile. But that didn’t help Chodas. Even though he had an inkling that the mysterious object had been part of the Surveyor 2 rocket, he needed to make sure once and for all. Detailed analysis of 2020 SO was the next step.
Scientists around the world then began to work on studying this strange flying mass, hoping to get a positive ID. Of course, that was no easy task. We’re talking about something that was only about 25 feet long, after all. It also didn’t help that it was floating through space many thousands of miles from Earth.
But there was confirmation of sorts that 2020 SO was not a naturally formed asteroid. Researchers in Arizona and Spain confirmed that radiation from the Sun was subtly altering the object’s path, which would be extremely unlikely if the mass was a piece of solid rock. If it was a hollow piece of metal, on the other hand? That phenomenon would be entirely expected.
So, it was looking increasingly likely that 2020 SO was not an asteroid or even an alien spaceship but the remains of a booster rocket. And Chodas suggested that it could be the Centaur rocket section from Surveyor 2. That had been jettisoned soon after the spacecraft had launched from Earth.
After separating from Surveyor 2, the Centaur booster had traveled on through space, past the Moon and – as far as anyone knew – onwards into oblivion. But if this piece of space debris was the Centaur, it had clearly started to orbit around the Sun in a full circle that also brought it close to Earth.
Fortunately, state-of-the-art technology was able to help confirm that 2020 SO was comprised of metal rather than rock. Vishnu Reddy, an associate professor at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, led the team that analyzed the data captured by an infrared telescope in Maunakea, Hawaii.
Quoted on the NASA website, Reddy said of the results, “Due to extreme faintness of this object following [the] Center for Near-Earth Object Studies prediction, it was a challenging object to characterize. We got color observations with the Large Binocular Telescope or LBT that suggested 2020 SO was not an asteroid.” But his work went further than that.
Next, Reddy and his colleagues compared the infrared signature of 2020 SO with that of 301 steel – the material used in Centaur rockets. But while the match was close, the team had to be even more precise if they wanted to make a definite identification. So, they went onto the next stage of the painstaking research, which involved more infrared signal comparisons.
Reddy explained this further step, saying, “We knew that if we wanted to compare apples to apples, we’d need to try to get spectral data from another Centaur rocket booster that had been in Earth orbit for many years to then see if it better matched 2020 SO’s spectrum.” But this, too, would be no simple task.
“Because of the extreme speed at which Earth-orbiting Centaur boosters travel across the sky,” Reddy continued, “we knew it would be extremely difficult to lock on with the Infrared Telescope Facility long enough to get a solid and reliable data set.” But the scientists were determined to do just that. And early in December 2020, they succeeded.
The researchers focused on observing what they knew to be the remnants of a Centaur booster rocket from 1971. They kept this piece of space junk in their sights long enough to get sufficient data, as that way they could compare this information with what they already had about 2020 SO. And the result of the analysis of the two sets of data? A conclusive match.
Yep, what had started out as a mere hunch was now accepted as fact. This piece of space junk definitely was not an asteroid. Nor was it a spaceship from another galaxy – even if UFO hunters may have wanted it to be. Instead, it was indeed the Centaur booster rocket that had formed a key part of the sadly unsuccessful Surveyor 2 mission.
Sometime around the spring of 2021, the Centaur booster will pass beyond our planet and head off on its orbit around the Sun. And it won’t be the last time that this memorial to the failed NASA launch returns. The dead thruster is slated to head again towards Earth sooner than you may think, in fact. Chodas told The New York Times, “In 2036, it’s coming back.”
But for the moment, let’s not travel forward in time but backward. Four decades ago, two U.S. space probes landed on the surface of Mars. Equipped with a series of experiments, the craft then began searching for evidence of life on the Red Planet. And according to scientist Gilbert Levin, they found what they were looking for, too. So, why hasn’t NASA been shouting from the rooftops about this monumental discovery?
Ever since the first investigations of Mars in the 17th century, people have been preoccupied with one question: could there be life on this distant planet? Even today, finding proof that we’re not alone in the universe remains the holy grail of countless researchers who spend their days looking to the stars. And from the 1960s, NASA has been leading the race to answer this conundrum once and for all.
To that end, in 1993 NASA launched the Mars Exploration Program – an endeavor with four distinct goals. Along with determining whether life has ever existed on the Red Planet, the project seeks to study both the geological make-up and meteorological conditions of this far-off piece of the universe. In addition, NASA aims to lay the groundwork for human visitors to Mars.
And over the years, NASA has made many attempts to gather data about Mars, which is located 140 million miles from Earth. The first successful mission was launched back in 1964, when Mariner 4 rocketed into space from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Then, the following year, the probe undertook a fly-by of the planet – a pioneering feat in itself.
That was far from the only breakthrough made, either. As the probe passed close to Mars, it managed to capture images of the terrain below – the first-ever close-up glimpse of a planet from deep space. But then, later that year, communications stopped, only resuming briefly in 1967.
Today, Mariner 4 has been abandoned, a wreck of a spacecraft floating uselessly somewhere around the sun. Over the years, though, other NASA missions have taken up the mantle. In 1969, for example, both Mariner 6 and Mariner 7 traveled to Mars, sending vital information back to Earth during their respective journeys.
Apparently, these later probes were tasked with laying the groundwork for future research – including the hunt for life on the Red Planet. But while neither Mariner 6 nor Mariner 7 spotted any actual Martians, it wouldn’t be long before a NASA mission uncovered something intriguing.
Still, the space agency saw some failure in the interim. Setting off from Cape Canaveral in May 1971, Mariner 8 was intended to be the first probe to go into orbit around Mars. Yet unfortunately there was an equipment failure during the launch, and this led the craft to crash down into the Atlantic Ocean.
Undeterred, NASA launched Mariner 9 just weeks later, beating the Soviet Union in the race to send a probe into Martian orbit. And for almost a year, the craft circled the Red Planet, ultimately transmitting more than 7,000 images back to researchers on Earth.
Mariner 9 proved an invaluable source of data, too. In total, it photographed 85 percent of Mars’ surface, revealing in detail a complex terrain of canyons and craters. But for those hoping for signs of life in the vicinity, there was sadly very little to go on.
Meanwhile, another ambitious NASA project was coming to the end of its run. Back in the 1960s, it seems, some had believed that man would land on Mars as early as the 1980s. And as a precursor to these hypothetical missions, the agency therefore initiated the Voyager Mars Program in 1966.
Originally, the Voyager Mars Program intended to send a series of probes into outer space in the mid-’70s. But this endeavor was ultimately called off in 1971 – the same year in which Mariner 9 reached Martian orbit. According to experts, the design of the proposed Voyager Mars spacecraft was flawed, and so such a rocket may have proved both costly and dangerous to launch.
Yet despite this cancellation, NASA’s big plans for Mars did not fade away. And, eventually, the Voyager Mars Program evolved into the Viking Program. This time, the objectives of the mission were threefold: to capture detailed images of the planet, to study its composition and to uncover whether life existed there.
In fact, the Viking Program would go on to develop the very first landers designed to search for biosignatures – indicators of past or present life – on Mars. So, on August 20, 1975, Viking 1 left Cape Canaveral, arriving at the Red Planet close to a year later. Viking 2, on the other hand, departed Earth on September 9, 1975, and found Mars a month after its partner probe in 1976.
Both Viking 1 and Viking 2 consisted of two parts. One of these, the orbiter, was designed to detach above the Martian atmosphere and take snapshots of the planet below. The lander, by contrast, would continue on and finally come to rest on the alien terrain.
And for just over four weeks, Viking 1 orbited around Mars, scanning for a suitable landing site. Then, to the delight of those at NASA, the units successfully detached, with each embarking on its unique mission. Altogether, the program cost somewhere in the region of $1 billion – or around $5 billion today.
So, what exactly did NASA get for its money? Well, amazingly, the Viking Program delivered results that would inform the study of Mars for decades to come. While the landers of both Viking 1 and Viking 2 busied themselves on the surface below, the orbiters gathered a steady stream of information about the Red Planet. And with that data, researchers were able to develop a startling theory.
By this point, NASA knew that the surface of the planet was littered with the remnants of extinct volcanoes. Incredibly, though, the images captured by the two orbiters revealed something new: evidence that water may have once existed. For example, the probes detected geological aspects on Mars that could have been created as the result of flowing liquid.
The two Viking orbiters also detected signs that there was still water on the planet – albeit deep underground. And even though this data has been questioned over the years, it has never been disproved. Understandably, then, some researchers have jumped on the possible presence of water as proof that Mars could once have supported life.
As the Viking orbiters delivered these revelations back to Earth, however, the two landers were busy conducting experiments on the surface. Deployed to different locations on Mars, they were tasked to search the planet for evidence of life, among other things. And what they found continues to cause controversy to this day.
After their respective arrivals on Mars, each of the landers carried out a series of identical procedures designed to collect soil samples from the surface. Near the equator of the planet, Viking 1 utilized its robotic arm to place specimens within a special container; in the northern hemisphere, Viking 2 completed the exact same process.
Together, the NASA team back on Earth hoped that these samples would ultimately provide more information about the biology of Mars – determining, perhaps, how likely it was to support life. And while the majority of the materials were later found to contain no evidence of any thriving organisms, there were also some surprising results.
In one experiment, a device known as a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer identified the chemicals present in Martian soil. Ultimately, this test concluded that the samples showed little sign of organic life. There was also a gas exchange study, which looked at the vapors released by the specimens in a laboratory setting.
In the so-called pyrolytic release experiment, meanwhile, the samples were subjected to conditions designed to mimic those on Mars. Apparently, researchers theorized that any microorganisms present would convert the carbon in the atmosphere into biomass, which could then be detected. But, yet again, this process also failed to turn up anything notable.
Unlike the other tests, though, the labeled release experiment yielded results that made scientists think twice about life on Mars. In fact, after just one month on the Red Planet, Viking 1 had apparently delivered data that suggested something truly exciting.
The labeled release experiment was a relatively simple affair. Essentially, it took a sample of Martian soil and doused it in a special mixture of nutrients. Then, if any microorganisms were present in the specimen, they would begin to metabolize the solution – a process that could be monitored and tracked.
Crucially, both the pyrolytic release and labeled release experiments incorporated control tests that would allow researchers to check the results. If either of these experiments returned a positive response, the same soil would then be subjected to a secondary procedure. And by heating the sample, researchers would thus be able to determine whether or not the reaction had been by chemical or biological means.
Even before Viking 1 had landed on Mars, researchers had conducted a number of trial runs of the labeled release experiment. Crucially, not a single one had returned a false result. And when the lander relayed the first set of data to Earth on July 30, 1976, staff at NASA were in for a shock.
Amazingly, the results of the first labeled release experiment suggested that there were indeed living microbes present on Mars. Not only that, but this conclusion was also supported by the control test – apparently confirming that the activity was biological rather than chemical. The stunning finding didn’t appear to be a one-off, either.
Over the course of the program, both Viking 1 and Viking 2 continued to conduct labeled release experiments on Mars, with NASA ultimately receiving four indications of the presence of microbes in Martian soil. Apparently, the data resembled that collected from samples here on planet Earth.
But if this was the case, you may ask, why wasn’t more of a fanfare made of this remarkable discovery? Well, unfortunately, the results did not appear to bear up to scrutiny. And when another Viking experiment, a molecule analysis, failed to turn up any corroborating evidence, NASA reached a rather disappointing conclusion.
Ultimately, the agency’s researchers concluded, the positive results generated by the labeled release experiment were not proof of microbial activity on Mars. Instead, they represented something in the Martian soil that was merely echoing the appearance of life. Yet not everyone agreed with this conclusion. And in 1997 two of the scientists involved in the study explained their own views on the matter.
In the book Mars: The Living Planet, engineer Dr. Gilbert Levin and co-experimenter Patricia Ann Straat – along with academic Barry DiGregorio – discussed the labeled release procedures. And according to Levin, the tests really had indicated the presence of microbial life on Mars. That’s an opinion he still holds to this day, in fact.
For many years, Levin remained in the minority, with his conclusions questioned by most of his fellow scientists. But the engineer received vindication of a sort in April 2012, when the results of a new analysis were released. Over at the University of Southern California, ex-NASA project director Joseph Miller had decided to take another look at the labeled release experiment.
Together with Giorgio Bianciardi from the University of Siena in Italy, Miller ran the Viking Program’s data through a different test. This time, the process involved a method known as cluster analysis, which divided the biological and non-biological indicators. And the scientists consequently reached a fascinating conclusion: Levin may have been right after all.
“We just plugged all the [Viking experimental and control] data in and said, ‘Let the cluster analysis sort it out,’” Miller told National Geographic in 2012. “What happened was [that] we found two clusters. One cluster constituted the two active experiments on Viking, [while] the other cluster was the five control experiments.”
This wasn’t all. During the study, the researchers also compared the data collected by the Viking Program with various samples – both biological and non-biological – from Earth. And according to Miller, the results spoke for themselves. “It turned out that all the biological experiments from Earth sorted with the active experiments from Viking, and all the non-biological data series sorted with the control experiments,” he explained. “It was an extremely clear-cut phenomenon.”
Elsewhere, the specialists found evidence to suggest that a circadian rhythm – an internal day clock found in all organisms – could be detected in the Viking Program’s samples. However, Miller has since expressed his disappointment in NASA for failing to take the necessary measures to investigate this further. And in a 2019 article for Scientific American, Levin also puzzled over the agency’s apparent loss of interest in the search for extraterrestrial life.
According to Levin, NASA has never sent any life-detection equipment back to Mars to check up on the Viking program’s original results. Even so, that hasn’t stopped more astonishing finds from emerging over the years. When the Curiosity rover landed in 2012, for example, it found reason to suggest that the Martian environment may once have provided suitable conditions for life to thrive.
Methane has also been detected in the atmosphere of Mars, further hinting at the presence of biological organisms there. But at present, NASA only has one future mission planned to the Red Planet to collect Martian soil. If alien life is ever discovered, then, it may be down to the work of private companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX.