WASHINGTON – A 20-year-old military weather satellite apparently exploded in orbit Feb. 3 following what the U.S. Air Force described as a sudden temperature spike.
The “catastrophic event” produced 43 pieces of space debris, according to Air Force Space Command, which disclosed the loss of the satellite Feb. 27 in response to questions from SpaceNews.
The satellite, Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Flight 13, was the oldest continuously operational satellite in the DMSP weather constellation.
Launched in 1995, DMSP-F13 provided thousands of hours of weather imagery to Air Force and Navy forecasters before transitioning to a backup role in 2006. The Air Force said its sudden loss would have minimal impact.
“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,” the Air Force said. “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.”
The Air Force still has six DMSP satellites in service following the launch last April of DMSP-F19. A seventh satellite, DMSP-F20, was under consideration for a 2016 launch as recently as November.
Air Force Space Command said DMSP-F13’s power subsystem experienced “a sudden spike in temperature” followed by “an unrecoverable loss of attitude control.” As DMSP operators were deciding to “render the vehicle safe” the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, identified a debris field near the satellite.
The Air Force said it is continuing to track the debris and will issue conjunction warnings if necessary.