Earlier this month, while working on the International Space Station, two astronauts accidentally dropped their tool bag. By the time they realized what happened, it was too late. The bag had already floated away, becoming just another piece of space junk that is orbiting five minutes ahead of the space station.
The astronauts said they planned to remove a communications device called the radio frequency group but noticed they were running short on time during their space walk. They had lifted some insulation to get a better view of the task and that’s when the bag went flying.
It’s now going around the Earth at 17,000 miles per hour.
This isn't an image of nothing. That white dot in the middle of the frame is a tool bag NASA astronauts lost during a spacewalk on the ISS.
— Popular Science (@PopSci) November 17, 2023
“Flight controllers spotted the tool bag using external station cameras. The tools were not needed for the remainder of the spacewalk,” agency officials wrote. “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 stray tool bag will float around our planet for a few months, until tendrils of Earth’s atmosphere pull it back for a safe burn-up high above the surface at roughly 70 miles (113 kilometers) in altitude. The bag was roughly 258 miles (415 kilometers) above Earth as of last week.
For now, the tool bag has a U.S. Space Force designation 58229/1998–067WC in its cataloging system for artificial objects, Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomer Jonathan McDowell (who also tracks space launches, landings and re-entries) shared on X, formerly Twitter.
NASA carefully monitors any space debris that comes within a multi-mile “pizza box” shape surrounding the space station; the orbiting complex has had to move out of the way nearly 40 times in its 24 years of service, although the agency uses a conservative 1-in-10000 chance threshold to keep crews safe.
Space debris, or “space junk” has become a growing problem as humanity has been able to send up satellite after satellite into space.
Popular Mechanics noted that “after years of orbital industry expansion, the planet is surrounded by discarded rocket debris, satellites, and all manner of space travel detritus. It’s getting so bad that a recent project space junk cleanup project was suddenly complicated by its target colliding with another bit of trash.
Thankfully, governmental regulators are taking notice—earlier this year, the FCC issued its first ever space pollution fine to the satellite television provider, Dish Network, for failing to properly decommission one of its satellites last year. No penalties are expected for ISS astronauts Moghbeli and O’Hara; after all, they aren’t the first astronauts to drop the bag, so to speak. In 2008, two ISS astronauts accidentally lost a kit containing “two grease guns, scrapers, several wipes and tethers and some tool caddies.”