Lost tool bag captured on video
The tool bag recently lost by NASA astronauts during a spacewalk is now orbiting Earth and is surprisingly visible to stargazers. The object can appear as bright as a 6th-magnitude star. You can see it in the video above by Eddie Irizzary and Nelson Ortega taken from Añasco, Puerto Rico, on November 11, 2023, around 7:15 pm AST (23:15 UTC). At the time, the tool bag was passing close to where we see Delta Aquilae and Altair, the brightest star in the constellation Aquila the Eagle. Orbital tracking and predictions confirm the object in this video is, in fact, the tool bag that astronauts Jasmin Moghbeli and Loral O’Hara accidentally lost on November 2, 2023.
The tool bag changes slightly in brightness, suggesting the object is tumbling as it orbits our planet. Although the tool bag was ahead of the International Space Station (ISS) by about a minute or two shortly after the incident, it is gradually appearing farther ahead of the ISS as it loses altitude.
In fact, it was already about five minutes ahead of the ISS on November 11 (the date the video was taken). By mid-November, the tool bag should be ahead by about ten minutes.
Observations also indicate that as the tool bag loses altitude, it has drifted slightly to the east, or left, of the ISS’s trajectory.
In the last segment of the video above, the ISS appears. It was passing close to where we see the bright star Altair.
How long will it be up there?
The tool bag should remain in orbit around Earth for a few months yet. Unlike the ISS, the tool bag will rapidly descend in orbit until it reaches about 70 miles (113 km). At that point it will disintegrate. New estimates indicate the tool bag should reenter the atmosphere between March and July of 2024.
How to see the tool bag with binoculars
It’s surprisingly bright (for a tool bag), shining just below the limit of visibility to the unaided eye at around magnitude +6. That means some sky observers should be able to pick it up with binoculars.
The first step to seeing it is checking if you have a visible pass of the ISS. Check here for how to see ISS in your sky. Your strategy will be to figure out the trajectory of the ISS and look for it before the space station crosses the sky. It’s already five minutes ahead of the ISS and will soon be nearly 10 minutes ahead.
If you get an image, please submit it to EarthSky Community Photos!
How did it get lost?
The spacewalkers were conducting repairs on assemblies that allow the ISS solar arrays to track the sun continuously. A blog post at SciTechDaily, which was describing the spacewalk, explained:
During the activity, one tool bag was inadvertently lost. Flight controllers spotted the tool bag using external station cameras. The tools were not needed for the remainder of the spacewalk. Mission Control analyzed the bag’s trajectory and determined that risk of recontacting the station is low and that the onboard crew and space station are safe with no action required.
The lost tool bag on social media
— Dr Meganne Christian (@astro_meganne) November 5, 2023
A tool bag was lost during last week’s EVA to replace a trundle bearing on the port solar alpha array. The object is now listed in the catalog as ID 1998-067WC/58229. The tool bag as a +6th magnitude ‘star’ currently about a minute ahead of the ISS.https://t.co/2YZf3PnjzV
— Dave Dickinson (@Astroguyz) November 6, 2023
The crew lock bag that floated free during the Nov 1 EVA-89 spacewalk has been cataloged as 58229 / 1998-067WC in a 415 x 416 km orbit
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) November 5, 2023
Not the first time
And this isn’t the first time a NASA astronaut has lost a tool bag. On November 18, 2008, astronaut Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper was performing a similar repair at the ISS when she inadvertently lost a tool bag.
Some two months later, on January 12, 2009, the object was still visible ahead of ISS and was seen with binoculars by Joxelle Velazquez among others during a star party at Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico. See the image below.
There’ve been earlier losses of astronauts’ items, too, to the junkyard of near-Earth orbit. Victor Tangermann at Futurism reported on November 3:
It’s far from the first time astronauts have lost track of tools in space. Back in 1965, NASA astronaut Ed White infamously lost a spare glove during a spacewalk outside of his Gemini 4 spacecraft. Over the decades, several other astronauts have lost other objects, from spare bolts in 2006 to an entire bag ironically containing a debris shield in 2017.
And, although NASA has determined that the 2023 tool bag isn’t on a trajectory that’s dangerous to the astronauts aboard the ISS at this time, the problem of litter in near-Earth orbit remains and is serious. As Tangermann wrote at Futurism:
The problem, of course, is that not every piece of space debris will stay out of the way of future space travelers.
And that is a sad truth.
Bottom line: NASA astronauts accidentally lost a tool bag during a spacewalk on November 2. Now, observers on the ground have caught the tool bag on video. See it here.