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An animation showing the new mini-moon's orbit. Gif: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Earth has captured a new mini-moon that will orbit our planet for a few months before heading back out on its cosmic journey through the solar system.

The big picture: Scientists think our planet likely has some kind of "mini-moon" in orbit at any given time.

Details: This mini-moon likely isn't an asteroid or any kind of natural detritus. NASA scientists think the mini-moon is actually the spent upper stage of a rocket that boosted the failed Surveyor 2 toward the Moon in 1966.

  • The object — named 2020 SO — entered into the part of space where Earth's gravity is dominant on Nov. 8 and is expected to stay there until it heads out to a new orbit around the Sun in March 2021.
  • Scientists figured out that the mini-moon is likely a rocket body by observing it and piecing together its past orbits.
  • "One of the possible paths for 2020 SO brought the object very close to Earth and the Moon in late September 1966," NASA's Paul Chodas said in a statement. "It was like a eureka moment when a quick check of launch dates for lunar missions showed a match with the Surveyor 2 mission."

Between the lines: Earth's adoption of this mini-moon illustrates how profoundly humanity has changed the space environment.

  • Even objects like this one from the earliest days of NASA are still floating around as space junk, possibly threatening operational satellites and spacecraft today.
  • NASA estimates there are millions of pieces of space junk in orbit today, and it's just getting more crowded up there as new satellites launch each month.

Go deeper

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Jan 26, 2021 - Science

Investment in the space industry overcame the pandemic's headwinds in 2020

A SpaceX launch in 2020. Photo: SpaceX

Investment in the space industry continued to grow in the last quarter of 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new report from Space Capital.

Why it matters: The space industry turned out to be far more robust in the face of the pandemic than many experts were initially expecting.

California governor declares drought emergency in most counties

A sign in April on the outskirts of Buttonwillow in California's Kern County, one of the top agriculture producing counties in the San Joaquin Valley, after historically low winter rainfall. Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) extended a drought emergency declaration to cover 41 of the state's 58 counties on Monday.

Why it matters: Most of California and the American West are experiencing an "extreme" or "exceptional" drought, per the U.S. Drought Monitor. Newsom and other officials are concerned California could experience a repeat of the catastrophic 2020 wildfire season.

2 hours ago - World

Jerusalem crisis escalates after Hamas and Israel trade rocket fire

Israeli air strikes in the southern Gaza Strip on May 10. Photo: Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images

Nine children were among 20 Palestinians killed in Israeli airstrikes after Hamas fired dozens of rockets at Jerusalem for the first time since 2014 Monday, per AP and Reuters.

The big picture: The rockets come after escalating violence in Jerusalem has injured 250 Palestinians and several Israeli police officers during protests over the planned evictions of Palestinian families from their homes that began Friday.