Life as an astronaut is not easy. Aside from undergoing rigorous training to even be considered for this job, the time spent in microgravity presents several challenges. This not only refers to health issues but also requires adapting to the fact that objects don’t fall to the ground; instead, they float in the vicinity where they were released, unless given a strong enough impulse. Upon returning to Earth, one must readjust to the normal gravitational conditions.
The recent spacewalk by NASA astronauts Jasmin Moghbeli and Loral O’Hara on November 1 might have resulted in a mishap. They completed an almost seven-hour extravehicular activity outside the International Space Station (ISS). These spacewalks are frequently a highlight of an ISS mission, aimed at maintaining or repairing external components, in this instance, solar panels.
During the spacewalk, Moghbeli accidentally let go of a bag containing instruments. The US space agency NASA has not disclosed the exact contents of the container. However, they provided reassuring information: “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.”
Space enthusiasts, such as the operators of the “earthsky.org” site, later pointed out that the object could be seen with binoculars, provided one knew the current location of the ISS (which can be determined using apps like “Spot the Station”). The bag orbits the Earth a few minutes ahead of the space station at approximately 400 kilometers above the Earth, gradually losing altitude.
According to the forecast, it will eventually descend into the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up at an altitude of about 110 kilometers. This is estimated to occur around March 2024.
Not the First and Likely Not the Last Incident
The NASA tools are not the only things that humans have left behind in Earth’s orbit. The European Space Agency (ESA) estimates that over 36,000 objects larger than ten centimeters are present. Many of these objects originate from past missions and constitute parts of rockets or satellites.
This incident is not the initial extravehicular activity on a space station where items have gone missing. For instance, during the Gemini 4 mission in 1965, the first American spacewalker, Ed White, lost a spare glove. In 2006, Joe Tanner lost a bolt during an extravehicular activity with colleague Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper. Two years later, Stefanyshyn-Piper herself lost an item in space—a toolbag—as captured on video, with her initial response being an evidently exasperated “Oh, great.”
Another illustration involves Piers Sellers, who, along with colleague Mike Fossum, was spacewalking in 2006. Sellers alerted, “Guys, I think my spatula has escaped“. The consoling response followed shortly: “Hey, that can happen.”
Featured Image: AP/Roscosmos State Space Corporation