Technically rockets are automobiles, so this belongs here. On September 3rd 2002 an amateur astronomer named Bill Yeung did what amateur astronomer Bill Yeung does best: he found an asteroid orbiting earth that nobody had found yet. Excited to claim the discovery, he named it J002E3 presumably because Spacey McSpace Face was already taken, but something was amiss. For one, nobody had noticed it before, which was odd given its size. Also, it seemed to be painted white.
Following its trajectory, and then back calculating its previous location using something called “math,” astronomers were able to determine that it had been in a heliocentric orbit for about 30 years and just recently entered earth orbit. The last time it was in proximity to the earth was around 1971. In an attempt to determine the composition of the asteroid, the University of Arizona did a spectral analysis by looking at the wavelengths of light reflected off of it from the sun and determined that it was titanium dioxide. Given its past, and the fact that titanium dioxide is used as a pigment in the white paint that NASA uses on its rockets, someone put the pieces together and said “Did we paint a thing and then launch it and then lose it in 1971?”
It was suggested that it may have been the third stage of Apollo 14, but that stage was accounted for when NASA decided to crash it into the moon at 6,000 miles per hour because NASA likes to party.
There was one other possibility.
A couple of years before that, during the 1969 Apollo 12 mission, after the third stage’s useful burn, it separated and was reignited to be propelled into a heliocentric orbit. It burned longer than expected, however, and entered an unstable earth orbit briefly before disappearing. It’s not certain, but it is likely that J002E3 was the third stage from Apollo 12 coming back to say hi. It orbited earth six times over the course of about a year before re-entering a sun-centered orbit. We can get a better look at it, and maybe confirm this mystery, when it returns to orbit earth briefly in the mid-2040s.
Until then, we can all get together and start the J002E3 was an alien spaceship covered up by the government conspiracy theory.
So there you go, 15 years ago we found an unknown spacecraft orbiting earth! Turned out to just be some junk we lost in the 60’s.
OR WAS IT!?
Yes, most likely.
More information: Mystery Object Orbits Earth | NASA.gov