There are millions of pieces of space junk orbiting Earth these days, so what’s one more bit of detritus amidst the trash cloud?
According to NASA’s recent spacewalk debriefing, International Space Station denizens Jasmin Moghbeli and Loral O’Hara spent nearly seven hours conducting various repairs on a sun-tracking solar panel array. During their shift, however, one of their “crew lock bags” (astronaut-speak for a toolkit) accidentally got loose, and drifted away before either astronaut could catch it. While not a major issue in and of itself, this certainly highlights (yet again) the growing problem floating above humanity’s heads.
[Related: The FCC just dished out their first space junk fine.]
Thankfully, the lock bag didn’t contain anything of major importance. In a separate press conference last week, ISS deputy program manager Dana Weigel stated the bag’s contents included “some tethers and things like tool sockets” similar to the everyday household varieties, calling them “fairly common items” that aren’t a “huge impact” for the crew. Most importantly, Mission Control observed the bag’s current orbital trajectory and determined it presents a low risk of “recontacting” with the ISS, with “no action required.”
Meganne Christian, a European Space Agency 2022 astronaut class member, shared a clip on social media taken from Moghbeli’s helmet camera showing the toolbag’s escape into the cosmic abyss.
Since the toolbag isn’t in a stable orbit, experts estimate it will decay into Earth’s atmosphere sometime during March 2024. Given its size, the lost equipment will burn up completely during the descent, so there’s no need to stress or keep an eye to the sky—unless that’s your thing, of course.
The US Space Force already cataloged the new orbital debris as 58229/1998-067WC, and will track its movements over the course of its lifespan. Per The Register, the toolbag’s brightness is measured at a stellar magnitude +6, meaning you could hypothetically witness its atmospheric reentry with the naked eye during perfect weather conditions. That said, binoculars will probably increase the odds of seeing its fiery end.
[Related: Some space junk just got smacked by more space junk, complicating cleanup.]
But one toolbag’s atmospheric cremation does very little to solve the ongoing issue of space junk. 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."
Update 11/17/2023 12:20PM : The Virtual Telescope Project has released this image, taken on November 15, 2023. The tool bag is still zooming around the Earth at roughly 17,500 mph until its projected March 2024 deorbit.