Air Force continues to track debris from exploded satellite

Air Force DMSP satellite rendering

An artist's concept depicts a DMSP satellite in orbit.

The debris field generated by the Feb. 3 explosion of an Air Force weather satellite continues to be monitored by the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center as military and civilian satellites traverse the polar orbit path.

The 19-year-old Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP-13) broke up after an apparent explosion over Antarctica. Controllers noted a sudden spike in the satellite's power subsystem prior to losing attitude control. The Air Force said it moved immediately to shut down all nonessential systems once the explosion was detected.

The result was a debris field reportedly containing as many as 46 objects cluttering the polar orbital path of military and civilian satellites. The debris field could also intersect the orbital plane of the International Space Station.

Space debris is something the Defense Department takes seriously. There are an estimated 500,000 non-functioning objects in orbit, from out-of-service satellites and spent rocket stages to piece of junk of varying sizes. Traveling at speeds up to 17,500 miles an hour, even a marble-sized piece of space junk can cause damage.

The Air Force has devoted considerable resources to tracking debris, including its Space-Based Space Surveillance system, which went fully operational in in April 2013 and reportedly has decreased the risk to satellites by 66 percent. The U.S. Strategic Command also tracks orbiting objects from the ground, as part of an international agreement with eight other nations. And DOD last year began releasing additional information on its Space-Track.org website to let satellite operators keep a closer eye on their assets.

The exploded DMSP-13 satellite, the oldest in the current constellation, was no longer being used for weather forecasts, but at more than 14 feet high and 2,720 pounds in weight, it adds some big pieces of junk into the mix.

The website AmericaSpace.com reported earlier this week that the Joint Space Operations Center is continuing to "assess this event to learn more about what happened and what it will mean for users within this orbit."

Ground controllers at Air Force Space Command and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Suitland, Md., first detected the explosion. The Air Force said it is continuing to track the objects and would provide warnings to satellite operators if necessary.

DMSP-13 was the oldest continually operating weather satellite in the meteorological satellite fleet. Six DMSP satellites remain in polar orbit. The DMSP constellation in a sun-synchronous orbit is used primary to track cloud cover and other weather conditions. The design lifetime of the weather satellites is four years.

Another older satellite in the DMSP fleet broke up in 2004. The suspected cause was battery explosion.

The Air Force has caught flack for refusing for weeks to confirm the mishap after satellite trackers first spotted a problem on Feb. 9. DMSP-13 "seems to have exploded and is in a slightly higher orbit," the satellite tracker Russell Eberst reported in the website SeeSat-L Feb. 9.

About the Author

George Leopold is a contributing editor for Defense Systems and author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom."Connect with him on Twitter at @gleopold1.

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