Launched in 1995, the DMSP-F13 satellite was part of a network (Defense Meteorological Satellite Program) that contained seven satellites, responsible for gathering meteorological data like infrared cloud imagery, as well as information relevant for oceanography experts. After 20 years of functioning and thousands of hours of weather-related pictures sent to the U.S. military, the satellite’s system collapsed because of overheating. The explosion split the device into 43 pieces of space debris, as approximated by Air Force Space Command, which made the accident public on February 27.
Signs of the DMSP-F13 system’s failure had been noticed previously, when, on February 3, 2015, the controllers in charge registered a temperature spike in the satellite and proceeded to shut down non-essential components. The first public announcement of the problems with DMSP-F13 was made on February 25, by T.S. Kelso, a senior research astrodynamicist for Analytical Graphic’s Center for Space Standards and Innovation in Colorado Springs (Colorado).
Although this is not the first incident of this kind, weather satellite explosions haven’t happened in the past decade. The last similar incident occurred in 2004, when one of DMSP-F13’s sister satellites (DMSP-F11) was blown into 56 pieces of spatial debris.
The loss of this satellite will not impair weather monitoring, because the device had been switched to a backup function in 2006 and was not in use by the National Weather Service or the Air Force Weather Agency at the time of the explosion. Without this satellite, real-time information about weather will be slightly scarcer for tactical users, but since the data it gathered was not being used for weather forecast modelling, the consequences of its breakdown will not affect the general public.
DMSP-F13 was the oldest satellite that worked continuously. It flew at an 800-kilometer altitude (standard for weather and spy satellites) and its orbit was sun-synchronous (meaning that its position changed with approximately one circular degree each day in relation to the celestial sphere, eastward, to keep pace with the Earth’s movement around the Sun).
image source: Urban Legends