Space junk: Orbital debris threatens future flights, Earth’s technology
Part of the Space Age’s legacy is its space junk, an evergrowing ring of “zombie” satellites and orbital debris.
Scott L. Hall, USA TODAY
Somewhere hurtling more than 200 miles above the planet’s surface is one of Earth’s newest satellites: a tool bag, and it’s possible you might be able to spot it with a telescope or good pair of binoculars if you know where to look.
The white, satchel-like tool bag slipped away from two astronauts during a rare, all-female spacewalk Nov. 1 as they performed maintenance on the International Space Station, according to social media posts on X, formerly Twitter, from scientists and other experts familiar with the situation.
While there’s no official word whether the tool bag contained a 10 mm socket wrench, the bag was spotted floating over Mount Fuji last week by Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa. Now space junk, it has since been cataloged with the ID 58229 / 1998-067WC.
It’s not the first tool bag lost in space. In November 2008, Endeavor astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper lost a grip on her backpack-size tool kit while cleaning up a mess from a leaking grease gun, according to space.com.
That tool bag, valued at $100,000, circled the planet for months until meeting its fiery end after plunging to Earth and disintegrating. Experts believe last week’s missing tool bag will share the same fate as it hurtles in the upper atmosphere, which has become increasingly littered.
As of September, the European Space Agency estimates 11,000 tons of space objects are orbiting Earth. That includes up to 36,500 pieces of debris greater than 4 inches, objects that could cause cataclysmic damage if they were to hit a satellite or a rocket.
How to see the missing tool bag ISS astronauts dropped using binoculars
Spotting a suitcase-size tool bag traveling thousands of miles an hour in the planet’s thermosphere isn’t the impossible task it might sound like, say avid sky watchers.
To begin, the bag is reflective thanks to catching the sun’s rays, and it shines just below the limit of visibility to the unaided eye, according to EarthSky.org, meaning you should be able to spot the tool bag with a good pair of binoculars.
Under clear, dark skies, the bag can be seen floating ahead of the International Space Station, which is the third-brightest object in the night sky and looks like a fast-moving plane, according to NASA.
It’s easy to spot if you know where to look.
According to EarthSky, follow the trajectory of the ISS and scan the sky in the area just ahead of the space station. As the tool bag gradually loses height, it should appear between two and four minutes ahead of the ISS during the next few days.
John Tufts is a reporter for the Indianapolis Star, part of the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JTufts@Gannett.com.