An Air Force satellite exploded over the Earth and has sent 43 pieces of debris into separate orbits around the planet, adding to the more than 500,000 pieces of space junk currently tracked by NASA.
The weather monitoring satellite, the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Flight 13 (DMSP-F13) launched in 1995, exploded in early February, according to reports. Scientists monitoring the satellite say that it probably didn’t collide with another piece of space debris, and they believe the explosion was likely caused by a power system failure.
“Basically, the spacecraft was 20 years old and experienced what appears to be a catastrophic event associated with a power system failure,” said Andy Roake, who is the head of the Current Operations Division at Air Force Space Command Public Affairs in Colorado Springs, in an interview with Space.com. Due to the age of the satellite, it means that it was no longer a critical component of the network.
As NASA notes, it tracks more than half a million pieces of junk larger than a marble that are orbiting around the planet. “They all travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft,” the space agency said in a recent space junk update.
The agency warns that the increasing “population” of debris in space poses a danger to all space vehicles—namely the International Space Station, space shuttles, and other spacecraft with humans on board.
Specifically, there’s more than 20,000 pieces of space junk “larger than a softball” currently orbiting, but NASA said there has been surprisingly few collisions with debris. The last collision appears to have taken place in 2009 when a defunct Russian satellite hit a U.S. commercial satellite, adding more than 2,000 pieces to the debris field around the planet.
Regarding the destruction of DMSP-F13 in February, it’s not the first DMSP satellite to explode after years of service.
“Because this satellite was no longer used by the National Weather Service or the Air Force Weather Agency, the impact of the loss of this satellite is minimal,” an Air Force spokesperson told SpaceNews.com. “We anticipate real-time weather data for tactical users will be slightly reduced without this satellite, but its data was not being used for weather forecast modeling.”
Currently, there are still six DMSP satellites in service, and a seventh one is being considered for launch in 2016.
SpaceNews wrote in a separate opinion piece this week that among the the 6,000 satellites that have been launched into space, about 4,000 are still in orbit. Only 30 percent of the remaining satellites are being used, while the other 70 percent are orbiting uncontrolled at about 18,000 mph.