The events took place on February 3, 2015, but the US Air Force disclosed them only a few days ago. DMSP-F13 (Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Flight 13), the oldest military meteorological satellite constellation still in use, apparently exploded producing a series of fragments following a sudden spike of temperature with subsequent loss of control.
The DMSP-F13 satellite was launched in 1995 in a sun-synchronous polar orbit. This means that it was passing over the poles and flying over every point of the Earth’s surface at the same local time. The altitude of this satellite was 800 kilometers (almost 500 miles). It’s the orbit normally chosen for spy and meteorological satellites.
In 2006, the DMSP-F13 satellite was relegated to a secondary use as a backup for the new satellites of its constellation. For this reason, the impact of its loss was minimal and it was spotted outside of the military at the end of February. Additional information was released when the Space News website asked for details.
DMSP-F13 isn’t the first satellite of the constellation DMSP to explode. In April 2004, DMSP-F11 suffered a similar fate. The strange thing is that in that case it was a satellite out of service so it wasn’t operational. The battery was disconnected and the only source of energy left was the hydrazine in its fuel tanks.
The investigation into the destruction of the satellite DMSP-F13 is still ongoing. The Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California, is trying to determine its cause and the possible consequences for other satellites in that orbit.
A quantity of space debris was generated by this event. This is a problem that’s becoming more and more serious given that more than one satellite has already been put out of use due to an impact with a piece of debris. There are several projects to try to eliminate the increasing amount of junk present in orbit that can pose a risk to satellites and other spacecraft. For the moment we can only hope that the existing debris won’t cause any damage.