J002E3 is believed to be the S-IVB third stage of the Apollo 12 rocket. It is expected to return to temporary Earth orbit in the 2040's.

If some enterprising soul decided to build a rocket capable of capturing it and returning it to Earth (not going to happen, I know) for study/to put in a museum, what state would we expect it to be in?

I would expect that it's less likely to have taken physical blows than objects in a stable orbit closer to the Earth, but equally likely, it would probably have been subject to more radiation etc. Is this correct, and how would it have affected it?

  • $\begingroup$ This is an interesting question! More about this object is available here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Oct 24, 2017 at 10:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @uhoh I love that you linked my other question about J002E3 ;) $\endgroup$
    – Baldrickk
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ I love that question! I can't get enough of that orbit GIF, changed my thinking about orbital mechanics forever. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 1:38

1 Answer 1


We don't know exactly what kind of shape it will be in. There are a few similar objects that have been returned, however, that we can get at least an idea of what it might look like. Let's look at the comparisons:

  • Surveyor 3- Landed on the Moon, was visited (Ironically) by the crew of Apollo 12. A report was done on the damage to this craft. 2 years on moon.
  • LDEF- Basically this was a satellite placed in to orbit by the space shuttle, and recovered years later, to see what would happen. 6 years in LEO
  • EURECA- Same thing as LDEF, but from ESA, not NASA. 1 year LEO
  • GENESIS- Solar sample return, crashed on Earth after 3.5 years.
  • Stardust- Comet Dust- small capsule returned to Earth. Deep space, 7 years.
  • Hayabusa- Asteroid sample return, 7 years Deep Space.
  • Many of the missions to deep space have included a dust counter. I'm going to look at the Venetia Student Dust Counter, on New Horizons.

A few other things. The dust environment in interplanetary space is quite a bit less than that around Earth. I would expect there to be some small impacts, but nothing compared to the LDEF mission, for instance. The dust levels seen in space have been measured, look at the SDC from New Horizons.

enter image description here

The dust levels are quite low, so we can assume that there will have been some, but not a significant number of small impacts.

The radiation is of some note. There is a good article about the effects of paint in space. Specifically, it states:

Ultraviolet radiation is particularly damaging to white paints used on the external surfaces of satellites. UV radiation causes significant increase in the solar absorptance of white paints, while it decreases the absorptance of black paints due to bleaching effects.

Bottom line, the black paint will become lighter, and the white paint darker.

Lastly, there is some indication that the paint, might bubble, which would lead to some chipping in the paint over time. This is based on the bubbles seen on Apollo 17.

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    $\begingroup$ @PersonArtPhoto. The satellite left in orbit for 6 years by the space shuttle was "LDEF", for "Long Duration Exposure Facility", not "LREF". Otherwise a great answer. $\endgroup$
    – JohnHoltz
    Commented Oct 24, 2017 at 16:44
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnHoltz FYI, for the future you can actually propose a small edit like that. But in any case, I've got it fixed, thanks! $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Commented Oct 25, 2017 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ So from this, especially reading some reports from LDEF - we would expect some degredation in the paint, but that it should be mostly intact? $\endgroup$
    – Baldrickk
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 14:00
  • $\begingroup$ That is what I would expect. But it's not really very easy to know for sure, so... $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ @PearsonArtPhoto you only fixed one of two LREFs. $\endgroup$
    – hobbs
    Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 8:29

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