We’ve all been there. You’ve put something down, and now you can’t find it – it’s like it disappeared into thin air. But earlier this month, a NASA tool bag literally did fly off into a vacuum during routine checks aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
The tool bag has been orbiting Earth for the last few weeks, having been photographed by Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa a few days after it escaped – as imaged above.
Now, the tool bag has become the latest in a series of celestial (or, rather, mechanical) wonders you can watch as they pass by in the night sky.
But where can you see it – and when? How can you spot it as it passes overhead? This page will tell you everything you need to know.
The NASA tool bag will be visible to people in the US and UK on Tuesday 21 November. It’s travelling fast, so it will only be visible for a couple of minutes in the sky.
In the UK, the tool bag is likely to be visible between 8pm and 8:10pm GMT this evening (21 Nov).
If you’re viewing from the USA, the tool bag will pass by on its first leg in the late afternoon of Tuesday 21 November – but some viewers will have to wait until the second leg, after the sun has set, to see it.
In North America, its first orbit will begin 4:34pm PT if you’re just north of San Francisco. However, given sunset will not happen until 4:55pm PT, you’re unlikely to be able to see it here.
Watchers in the northern states of the USA and in Canada may be more lucky. The tool bag will pass through California into Nevada, Idaho, Montana and North Dakota before crossing into Canada. When it passes over northeast Montana, the local time will be 5:38pm (MST).
The tool bag will appear on its second leg at about 6:12pm PT just east of Vancouver. It will pass just south of Calgary in an arc that ends in central-south Quebec at 9:20pm EST.
This whole journey will take place within just five minutes – despite what the timezones suggest.
You may have another chance to view the tool bag later this week, but as the tool bag descends closer to Earth’s atmosphere it could burn up at any moment.
Where to see the NASA tool bag
In the UK, the tool bag will be passing overhead on a trajectory spanning from southern Wales to the east coast of England. It will move through the skies north of Cardiff, through the Cotswolds, and over the suburbs of Northern London – all in the space of about five minutes.
In North America, the tool bag will appear off the coast of California, north of San Francisco, before moving north through five more states: Nevada, Oregon (though it just clips the corner of this state), Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota. It will then travel over Canada, passing just south of Winnipeg before disappearing over the state of Quebec.
That’s the first leg. The tool bag will return for a second show just a few hours later – but this time it will stick to Canada. It will begin east of Vancouver (directly north from Seattle), moving south of Calgary and across the country until it disappears further south in Quebec state.
The space tool bag is following the same path as the ISS, but about 15-30 minutes ahead of it.
The website N2YO.com is currently tracking the tool bag if you want to follow it – but make sure to look up from your screen in time for the show.
How can I see the NASA tool bag?
The tool bag may be small – and 250 miles (402km) away – but you may be able to spot it if you know how.
Given that the tool bag (which is really more like a bag) is made of a highly reflective material, it will resemble a glowing star moving slowly across the sky. It will come from the west – so make sure you’re looking in the right direction.
You might struggle to see this with the naked eye, but with the help of binoculars or a telescope you’ll have a better chance.
As the bag is 15-30 minutes ahead of the ISS, you can track the space station’s trajectory to help you decide whether it’s time to stand outside.
How do I spot the International Space Station?
You can track the ISS on NASA’s live tracking map. The space station is due to pass through the UK a bit later than the tool bag – which is rapidly moving away from it.
For example, the space tool bag is due above Thame, east of Oxford, at 8:06pm GMT. About 25 minutes later, at 8:30pm, the ISS will follow – though on a slightly different trajectory, just east of Swindon.
The ISS is visible with the naked eye, and completes orbit every 90 minutes. On 21 November, the ISS will be on a low pass – meaning when it passes overhead it will be low in the sky. So for best viewing opportunities, try to find somewhere with a clear horizon.
You’ll also have a much better chance of viewing if there are fewer clouds in your area this evening.
How did the tool bag get lost?
The tool bag was lost when NASA astronauts Jasmin Moghbeli and Loral O’Hara were carrying out repairs on the ISS, including replacing the hardware that supports the station’s solar arrays. They put it down and didn’t notice it slip away – and when they went back to look for it it was gone.
But you can see the moment it happened in NASA’s recording of the livestream below (at 4:03:46).
Dr. Thomas Hughes is a UK-based scientist and science communicator who makes complex topics accessible to readers. His articles explore breakthroughs in various scientific disciplines, from space exploration to cutting-edge research.