NASA astronauts drop tool bag during spacewalk – and it is now orbiting Earth

Credit: NASA

Two NASA astronauts accidentally dropped their tool bag during a spacewalk, sending the equipment into Earth’s orbit.  

The incident occurred on November 1, 2023, when astronauts Jasmin Moghbeli and Loral O’Hara were conducting a spacewalk to perform maintenance on the International Space Station (ISS), specifically repairing a solar panel. 

The tool bag, valued at approximately $100,000, slipped away from the astronauts while they were more than 2,550 miles above Earth, completing a task that involved replacing one of the 12 trundle-bearing assemblies on the ISS Solar Alpha Rotary Joint (SARJ), a critical component for tracking the Sun and generating power for the station.  

Despite the loss of the tool bag, the mission was a success, with Mission Control confirming that the solar array was operational after the bearing replacement. 

The tool bag, now orbiting Earth about 200 miles above the surface, has been classified as space debris with the ID number 58229/1998-067WC. It can be visible to observers on Earth with the aid of telescopes or binoculars.  

This incident, while it does not pose an immediate danger to the ISS or other satellites, has brought attention to the ongoing issue of space debris and its potential impact.  

According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), there may currently be more than 170 million pieces of debris in Low Earth orbit (LEO). 

Space debris can refer to any part of a space system no longer in use, from retired satellites to discarded rocket parts or like in this instance, tool bags. As the space industry grows, space debris incidents are expected to become more common, and potentially dangerous. 

The European Space Agency (ESA) had planned to deploy the ClearSpace-1 satellite in 2026 as a “world-first mission” to tackle space debris. However, on August 10, 2023, the payload adapter chosen for this mission was struck and damaged by a piece of space debris. 

NASA has confirmed that the tool bag is expected to remain in orbit for a few months before it descends and disintegrates in Earth’s atmosphere, likely around March 2024. 

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