At the end of February, a 20-year old US military satellite registered a power system temperature spike and then mysteriously exploded, blasting debris in different directions, adding to the several thousands of pieces of space junk already orbiting the Earth. Nobody yet knows why it blew up.
The satellite – Meteorological Satellite Program Flight 13 (DMSP-F13) – was part of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP), which is operated by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The NOAA was about to power down the satellite on February 3rd, when ground control teams became aware that a field of debris had formed around the spacecraft, according to an email from the US Air Force to Discovery News.
The Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) monitors meteorological, oceanographic, and solar-terrestrial physics for the US Department of Defense. It is managed by Air Force Space Command with on-orbit operations provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Image: Wikipedia)
Andy Roake, a spokesman for Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, said:
“Currently we have identified 43 pieces of debris from this incident.”
He added that the Air Force has ordered an investigation.
Most of the debris is orbiting around the Earth, which already has too much space junk. There are estimated to be more than 21,000 pieces of space junk measuring at least four inches orbiting the Earth at the moment.
So far, there have been no reports of other satellites being affected by the debris that came from the explosion.
The amount of space junk orbiting the Earth is piling up.
The Air Force said:
“The Joint Space Operations Center continues to monitor these items for conjunction assessment with other on-orbit assets.”
DMSP-F13 was the oldest in the military’s fleet of weather satellites – most of them had been phased out of operation in 2006. It was still gathering data in a backup capacity, but was not involved in long-term modelling.
According to the Air Force, the loss would have a negligible effect on their operations and forecasting abilities.
Officials told Space News:
“Because this satellite was no longer used by the National Weather Service or the Air Force Weather Agency, the impact of the loss of this satellite is minimal.”
“We anticipate real-time weather data for tactical users will be slightly reduced without this satellite, but its data was not being used for weather forecast modeling.”
This is not the first military weather satellite to explode after a long and otherwise successful run. A thirteen-year-old DMSP experienced a similar spike in temperature and blew up into 56 pieces in April 2004.