Recently I've started to observe satellites with my 20x80 Binoculars. I'm amazed by the fact I can clearly track satellites and rocket bodies at 2000 km altitude (I've reached 8 mag with some objects) from an urban sky.

I was wondering if I could observe some space debris fragments left by a fuel leaks, explosions or breakups of satellites, or just tools, bags, cameras, insulating blanckets or any kind of junk intentionally or accidentally thrown by astronauts during EVAs.

I guess these objects are small (less than a meter in the majority of the cases) but can amateur observers spot them? I see there's a lot of ISS DEB and IRIDIUM 33 DEB objects in orbital tracking databases. Which of them is the brightest? What magnitude are we talking about? I guess that there should be some pieces large enougth and reflective enought to be visible with my binoculars but I'm not sure about it (maybe it is easier to see one of them traversing in front of the Moon?).

Since I asked this question I've been able to observe these space debris:

List updated the 28/07/2020:

  • SL-24 DEB 2010-028D | wich is the Gas Dynamic Shield of the russian PICARD mission
  • BREEZE-M DEB (TANK) 2013-058C | wich is the toroidal fuel tank of the Briz-M stage of a russian rocket
  • ISS DEB (SEDA-AP) | wich is an experiment of the Kibo module from the ISS that couldn't be transported back to Earth and was released from the station.
  • H-2A DEB 2012-025F | wich is a 4/4D-LC Adapter for a japanese rocket
  • SL-24 DEB 2009-041J | wich is a Dnepr Platform A/Fairing
  • CZ-4C DEB 2014-047F | wich is a fragment of the upper stage of a Long March CZ-4C rocket
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    $\begingroup$ This is a really cool question! I'm curious, do you use a mount, tripod, or monopod with those 20x80 binoculars? $\endgroup$ – uhoh Sep 3 '19 at 15:01
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    $\begingroup$ A tripod. I ussually take a fixed position in the sky where I know some satellite will pass. For the sake of observing some debris I would try to move outside of the city (Madrid) but first I need to know if I have a chance and with what object in particular I have the greatest chances. $\endgroup$ – Swike Sep 3 '19 at 15:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Swike I've been searching for and finally found this cool answer in Astronomy SE describing a simple procedure to identify and observe geostationary satellites, which I've linked to in this answer as well. Unfortunately they may usually be too dim for an 80mm aperture unless you can catch a reflection off of some flat surface. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Sep 3 '19 at 22:58
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    $\begingroup$ Rob, Humanity Star re-entered atmosphere on March 2018. @eckes, Skylab re-entered on 1979. Even if they were in orbit I wouldn't consider them as space debris at all, Skylab was a space station (even when it was not functioning) and Humanity Star was a passive satellite, not space junk. I've seen AJISAI (a geodetic passive satellite from Japan) several times for example. What I want here is fragments and lost objects coming from satellites or rocket bodies just as I said in the question. $\endgroup$ – Swike Sep 4 '19 at 10:14
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    $\begingroup$ This is 100% on-topic! The nature of space debris, and the observation of space debris certainly is, and the participation of amateur observers in this is legendary and has been quite news-worthy as well. Voting to keep open! $\endgroup$ – uhoh Sep 5 '19 at 0:12

Yes, I've done it myself in my backyard in suburban Houston.

During a spacewalk in ISS increment 50, an MMOD shield intended for the axial port of Node 3 was lost. It's visible in this video floating below station. It ended up reentering about six months later.

A few weeks after it had been lost, I noticed that it would be visible from my house, with a track that would take it directly across the pan of the big dipper. That allowed me to watch for it by staring at a specific spot, rather than searching for it. With binoculars, it was faintly but distinctly visible as it crossed my field of view.

I'd set an object like that as about the limit of what can be reliably seen in suburban conditions with binoculars. It's fairly large as debris goes (6 feet long), and it was covered in white beta cloth, so it's about as bright as it could get without flaring.

If you're in a particularly dark area, you might have better luck.

  • $\begingroup$ Fantastic! Just awesome. I've would like to know if you known about any particular candidate right now. Things that large might be uncommon and I don't know if I currently have any chance to spot one without trying each and every thing with a DEB identification in TLE databases without any criteria. Do you know of any particular object I might see? $\endgroup$ – Swike Sep 3 '19 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ Unfortunately, I'm unaware of anything of that size. You might have some luck with ones associated with rocket bodies that have blown up, so if you see something with the same international designator as a R/B object, that might be a good candidate. I recommend the "stare" approach I described for these objects, as they may be very faint. Part of the difficulty with DEB objects is they aren't well characterized, except perhaps by radar cross-section. $\endgroup$ – Tristan Sep 3 '19 at 15:52
  • $\begingroup$ Huh, so that video is real! I saw it recently and presumed it was some CGI to make a UFO hoax. $\endgroup$ – David says Reinstate Monica Sep 3 '19 at 23:32
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidGrinberg Totally real. My team was partly responsible for getting those launched in the first place, so we were, um, not too thrilled when we first heard, "Hey Peggy, I don't have a shield," and saw it floating away. $\endgroup$ – Tristan Sep 4 '19 at 13:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Swike There's a picture of me in the July 2016 issue. Page 5, figure 2, standing, wearing a blue shirt. $\endgroup$ – Tristan Sep 23 '19 at 13:35

I’ve seen space debris with the naked eye, and my eyesight is far from exceptional. During a supply rocket launch to the ISS, the fairings that break off the main rocket are easily visible if the conditions are right.

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    $\begingroup$ Good point! Fairing separation usually happens a little bit above the Karman line so it's definitely space, just not in orbit. However, since fairing recovery is "a thing" now, not all of them are "debris" anymore. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Sep 5 '19 at 3:04

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