On 3rd February, 2015 a US Air Force weather satellite, Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Flight 13 (DMSP-F-13), exploded in Earth’s orbit. The explosion left debris flying around. Space officials and Air Force stated that the malfunction of batteries was the cause of this explosion and the satellite didn’t explode because of collision with any foreign body. European Space Agency has released an assessment study of the dangers posed by the debris left behind by the satellite.
The satellite was part of a program initiated back in the 1960s to deliver real-time weather information that was deemed relevant for US military operations. In 1972 it was declassified and later in 1998, it was transferred to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from US Air Force to cut down on costs. This particular satellite, DMSP-F-13, was launched in 1995 into a sun-synchronous polar orbit with an altitude of 800 km. It was demoted to the level of backup satellite once the DMSP constellation had new additions.
The batteries gave out owing to their old age. This is a problem that all the old satellites pose. The newer satellites have been tinkered with to avoid such events from taking place. According to the telemetry, the temperature of the batteries spiked suddenly just before the explosion took place. The blast transformed the satellite into 46 pieces (according to last count). ESA was able to run an assessment study based upon the data that was shared by the US Joint Space Operations Center and concluded that the remains of the satellite no longer pose a threat to operations and that these fragments will eventually burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.
Holger Krag of ESA’s Space Debris Office said, “The event is not considered major. Should the reported number of fragments stabilize at this level, we can consider it to be within the range of the past 250 on-orbit fragmentation events. For our missions – with CryoSat-2 being closest to the event altitude – we do not expect any meaningful risk due to the event.”
Air Force also released a statement saying that the loss of DMSP-F-13 won’t affect the services of Air Force.