A military weather satellite exploded in orbit on February 3, and Defense Department officials believe that a temperature spike may have been responsible for the blast.
Space News was the first media outlet to report on the destruction of the 20-year-old spacecraft. On February 27, officials of the Defense Department admitted to the loss of the vehicle.
The Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Flight 13 (Dmsp) satellite was the oldest continually-operating vehicle in the network of observatories. It was launched in 1995, to provide weather data to Navy and Air Force meteorologists. In 2006, the vehicle was downgraded to a backup role in the satellite constellation, reducing the impact its loss would have on the program.
"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," Air Force officials said.
The Dmsp-F19 satellite is the latest satellite in the network, launched into orbit in April 2014. Following the destruction of Dmsp-F13, the Air Force still retains six observatories in the network. An additional satellite, Dmsp-F20, was under construction as late as November 2014.
This was not the first spacecraft of its kind to explode in orbit. The Dmsp-F11 observatory exploded in orbit in April 2004, producing 56 known pieces of debris. That craft was no longer being used by the military when it was destroyed. Mission operators had already "passivated" the vehicle, burning remaining propellant, releasing compressed gases, and discharging batteries. Engineers were discussing whether or not to disable the Dmsp-F13 when it was destroyed.
Soon after a temperature spike was recorded about the vehicle, the observatory lost the ability to orientate itself.
The Air Force Space Command tracking the debris believe the explosion created at least 43 pieces of space junk, which could pose a danger to spacecraft in orbit. Roughly 1.5 percent of satellites destroyed in orbit were victims of space debris and other collisions. The Air Force has announced it will issue public warnings if any pieces of the former spacecraft pose a danger to other vehicles in orbit.
"While the initial response is complete, (Space Operations) personnel will continue to assess this event to learn more about what happened," Air Force Colonel John Giles, director of the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, said.