Two NASA astronauts completing routine maintenance on the exterior of the International Space Station (ISS) accidentally lost a tool bag. The bright white container is now floating through space roughly 250 miles above Earth.
The mishap took place on November 1 while astronauts Jasmin Moghbeli and Loral O’Hara were on their first spacewalk outside the ISS. They spent six hours and 42 minutes performing routine maintenance, including replacing a bearing on the solar array that provides power to the station. They also prepared for installation of a new solar array by removing a handling bar fixture, and they adjusted a cable that had been interfering with an external camera.
When they went back inside the space station, however, they were missing their tool bag.
“During the activity, one tool bag was inadvertently lost,” NASA’s Mike Garcia wrote in a blog post describing the spacewalk. “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 recontacting the station is low and that the onboard crew and space station are safe with no action required.”
Astronauts have a lot to think about while performing spacewalks—and the space station has a history of similar incidents in which people have lost track of items. The same thing happened in 2008 to astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper: She was busy tending to a messy grease gun that had exploded inside its tote when her tool bag floated off.
In 2017, astronauts on a spacewalk outside the ISS lost a bag containing a five-foot-long debris shield. In 2006, they accidentally let loose a bolt, a spring and a washer. That same year, Piers Sellers lost a spatula. And, famously, in 1965, during the first-ever American spacewalk, astronaut Ed White lost a spare glove. (You can see it around the 5:43-minute mark on the below video.)
The recently lost tool bag will spend the next few months drifting through space before descending into Earth’s orbit and, eventually, disintegrating in the atmosphere, according to EarthSky’s Eddie Irizarry and Deborah Byrd. The current outlook puts its reentry around March 2024.
Since it’s white, the tool bag is reflective—and likely visible from Earth with the aid of binoculars, according to EarthSky. Stargazers have the best chance of spotting it by first finding the ISS, then scanning the area just in front of it. Right now, the bag is about a minute ahead of the space station, but over time it will be two to four minutes ahead, per the publication.
The tool bag now joins the growing mass of “space junk” circling Earth. Also known as “orbital debris,” this motley collection includes dead satellites, abandoned launch vehicles and other paraphernalia. The amount of space junk is growing—and, as more satellites prepare to launch, this debris is becoming increasingly problematic. Though most of the pieces are small, they are moving at very fast speeds, which means collisions could cause damage to satellites, spacecraft or even the space station itself.
In Low Earth Orbit, an area between 100 and 621 miles above the planet’s surface, objects are moving at around 17,000 miles per hour. This means even a small object, like one the size of a ping-pong ball, “can cause significant damage or completely shatter existing infrastructure, producing more fragments,” per the Federation of American Scientists.
Scientists have likened space junk to pollution in the world’s oceans, and they’re calling for global space cleanup and mitigation efforts. All told, an estimated 100 trillion pieces of debris of all sizes are orbiting Earth.