Air Force weather satellite explodes in orbit

Air Force DMSP satellite rendering

An artist's rendering of a DMSP satellite in orbit.

A 20-yearold military weather satellite that apparently exploded while in orbit last month was the oldest in its constellation and was no longer being used for weather forecasts, according to a published report.

SpaceNews reported Feb. 27 that the satellite, part of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, exploded Feb. 3 after experiencing a sudden spike in temperature. The explosion, which the Air Force Space Command confirmed to Space News, created 43 pieces of orbital debris, but won’t cause much loss in data, since it was no longer being used for forecasting by either National Weather Service or the Air Force Weather Agency.

It does, however, leave a fair amount of space junk behind. According to an Air Force fact sheet, satellites in the program are 14 feet, 3 inches high (25 feet long with their solar arrays deployed), 4 feet in diameter and weigh 2,720 pounds.

The Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, or DMSP, now consists of six satellites orbiting Earth at an altitude of about 500 miles. The constellation tracks existing weather systems and developing weather patterns and can relay data in real time for Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine forces. The system also can be used to create 3D cloud analyses and help with high-frequency communications, over-the-horizon radar and spacecraft drag and reentry tasks, according to the Air Force.

DMSP is the longest-running production satellite program in history, according Lockheed Martin, which along with Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor. Initiated in 1962, it was highly classified until 1973. The exploded satellite, known as DMSP Flight 13, was launched in 1995. The most recent addition to the constellation, DMSP-F19, was launched in April 2014.

The program is managed by the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base, with command and control provided by a joint-operational team at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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