NASA tool bag lost during spacewalk is now an 'accidental satellite', visible from Earth

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Our planet is orbited by thousands of satellites. Some are in low-Earth orbit, some are high, some are functioning and some have died.

Very few fit the label of “accidental satellite.” But that’s what object 1998-067WC is. You could also call it by the more prosaic name: ISS TOOL BAG. And with a steady hand and some binoculars, you might even spot it in the sky.

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On Nov. 1, NASA astronauts Jasmin Moghbeli and Loral O’Hara were conducting a spacewalk outside the space station. Over six hours and 42 minutes outside, they replaced a trundle bearing assembly on one of the solar arrays, allowing it to better track the sun. They also dropped something.

“During the activity, one tool bag was inadvertently lost,” the space agency wrote in its blog report on the mission. “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 re-contacting the station is low and that the onboard crew and space station are safe with no action required.”

The white bag isn’t quite bright enough to see with the naked eye as it orbits the Earth at an altitude of about 420 kilometres. But binoculars should be able to spot it, and several amateur astronomers have caught it on video.

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The trick is knowing where the space station is, since the bag is drifting away from it, and now crosses the sky on the same path, but about 10 minutes ahead of the station.

Sites like heavens-above.com can give you reliable times to see the space station going over your location — unlike the little lost bag, it’s easily visible without binoculars, and a pretty awesome sight. In Toronto, for instance, the ISS will appear to rise Friday night at 6:24 p.m. in the southwest, getting higher in the sky before winking out about three and a half minutes later as it enters the Earth’s shadow.

The bag’s orbital designation, 1998-067WC, connects it to the launch of the station’s first module in 1998, although the tool bag wasn’t on that first rocket. It also won’t be around much longer, with NASA predicting it will enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up between March and July of next year.

And since humans have been living in space for more than 60 years now, it’s not surprising that we’ve misplaced a few other objects. In 2008, astronaut Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper lost a similar tool bag while also working on one of the station’s solar panels. The previous year, Suni Williams lost a camera while working on (you guessed it) a stuck solar array.

And in 1965, during one of the first spacewalks ever, Ed White accidentally let go of an extra glove and watched it float away. The other one made it back to Earth and is in the Smithsonian.

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