Welcome Home Apollo 12

In 2002, astronomers noted that the Earth acquired a new “moon,” dubbed J002E3. Such orbits are unstable in the long run, due to the likelihood of interactions with the Earth and Moon perturbing the orbit of such a small object. As observational data continued to accumulate, it became obvious that this object had some peculiar characteristics. It’s orbit was strongly perturbed by the pressure of solar radiation, indicating the object was not very dense.

The motion of J002E3, showing how the object was captured into its chaotic orbit around the Earth by passing near the L1 point, looping around the Earth for 6 orbits, and then leaving Earth’s orbit. The Sun is to the left in these animations (NASA/Paul Chodas & Ron Baalke, 2002, Public Domain; Courtesy Wikimedia)

As the object continued an elaborate dance of a half dozen orbits around the Earth and Moon, observations indicated light reflected by the object was consistent with the spectral characteristics of white paint, black paint, and aluminum.

S-IVB stage of Apollo 17, identical to that from Apollo 12 (NASA, Public Domain, 1972, courtesy Wikimedia).

Although the orbital motions and interactions with solar radiation make the object’s orbit too chaotic to trace with a high degree of certainty, backtracking its orbit led to the conclusion that it had last been in the vicinity of the Earth in 1971. Scientists believe the object is the missing third stage of Apollo 12.

After a half dozen orbits of the Earth, a close pass with the moon perturbed the object back into a heliocentric orbit around the sun. Scientists estimate another close approach sometime in the 2040’s.

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