Military weather satellite explosion in space detected, tracked in Colorado

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - A Colorado satellite tracking company says a 20-year-old military weather satellite exploded in orbit last month, sending more than 40 pieces of debris into scattered orbits around the earth.

The aging satellite -- designated Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Flight 13 (DMSP-F13) -- had been orbiting the Earth at an altitude of about 500 miles since 1995.

Air Force Space Command, headquartered at Peterson Air Force Basis in Colorado Springs, did not announce the Feb. 3 satellite catastrophe but confirmed the loss of the satellite on Feb. 27, in response to questions from SpaceNews.com.

"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 first public mention of a problem with DMSP-F13 came from Dr. T.S. Kelso, a senior research astrodynamicist for Analytical Graphics’ Center for Space Standards and Innovation (CSSI) in Colorado Springs.

Air Force Space Command confirmed to SpaceNews.com that the "catastrophic event" came after "a sudden spike in temperature" was detected, followed by "an unrecoverable loss of attitude control." The U.S. Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California later said the battery system was believed to be to blame for the temperature spike and explosion.

The explosion sent at least 43 pieces of satellite debris to scatter into various orbits, which are now being tracked by the U.S. Air Force.

The satellite orbited in continuous sunlight, from pole to pole, completing an orbit in about 101 minutes. The orbit gave the satellite access to the entire globe.

"With regard to this particular event, we would expect that each of the now 46 pieces of debris cataloged is the size of a softball or larger, since this is the 'advertised' capability of the radars that make up the US Space Surveillance Network (SSN)," Kelso told 7NEWS by email on Tuesday. "… this debris originated about 800 km (500 miles) up, whereas the ISS orbits about 400 km (250 miles) high. So, it does not appear that any of this debris is a threat to the ISS."

Kelso said other the debris was a tiny fraction of the space junk orbiting the earth.

"… there are a lot of other satellites that operate in sun-synchronous and near-polar orbits at this altitude -- including many weather and earth resources satellites and some low-Earth orbit communications constellations such as Iridium, Orbcomm, and GlobalStar. While 46 objects is only a small fraction of the ~22,000 objects reported by Air Force Space Command to be tracked by the Space Surveillance Network (most of which is debris in low earth orbit), it does point to the need to better understand this environment and work together to minimize the risk of unintended collisions."

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