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DMSP satellite explosion poses collision hazard


Mar 06 2015

Artist impression of a DMSP satellite orbiting Earth

Image courtesy of US Air Force

DMSP satellite explosion poses collision hazard

Other satellites had a lucky escape when DMSP-F13 exploded last month.

It appears that when the US military weather satellite exploded on the 3rd February, no other satellites sustained any immediate damage.  The satellite was one of a number of satellites that had been launched as part of the Defence Meteorological Satellite Program.


DMSP-F13 was launched in March of 1995 and was operational until 2008.  Satellite DMSP-F15 is still operational as part of the program.  The program provides global visual and infrared cloud data for weather analysing and forecasting.  The range of onboard sensors also gather space environmental data.  This data is used for weather forecasting on Earth as well as in uses in space, such as assisting with high frequency communications, over-the-horizon radar and spacecraft drag and re-entry tasks.  The US Air Force, who controls the program, provides the data for operational forces worldwide, as well as for civilian uses.


DMSP-F13 was in Low Earth Orbit, at an altitude of approximately 450 nautical miles (830 km), which is commonly used by satellites performing Earth monitoring and communications.  When it exploded, it reportedly broke into more than 40 pieces, each one creating a potential threat to other spacecraft.


The satellite’s orbit weight was 2552 pounds (1158 kg).  Just one month away from its 20th year in orbit, it is believed it exploded due to failing componentry.  The European Space Agency website states:  “Satellite fragmentations are typically triggered by break-ups of tanks or batteries caused by remnant onboard energy sources under the influence of the harsh environment in space“.


Although it appears to be causing no immediate threat, the debris the explosion caused is being monitored by various agencies.  It is a little ironic that a satellite that served to protect other satellites and spacecraft now poses a collision risk for existing and future spacecraft.


Space junk is a big problem.  Read more about it in The Space Graveyard:  Where satellites go when they die.