Another U.S. Air Force weather satellite just broke up in orbit

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WASHINGTON — A third U.S. Air Force weather satellite that launched more than 20 years ago has broken up in orbit, Air Force Space Command disclosed Monday evening.

Air Force officials confirmed the breakup of the long-retired Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Flight 12 satellite (DMSP F-12) after the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, detected an additional object orbiting alongside the 22-year-old satellite.

DMSP F-12, which the Air Force retired from service in 2008, had the same battery assembly that was implicated in the February 2015 breakup of DMSP F-13.

While both satellites were built by Lockheed Martin and launched less than a year apart, DMSP F-13 was still in service when it suffered its breakup, producing nearly 150 pieces of debris.

DMSP F-12, in contrast, was shut down in 2008 — a process that entails burning off the satellite’s remaining fuel, releasing compressed gasses, and discharging the battery. The Air Force said Monday evening it was tracking just one piece of debris associated with DMSP F-12’s breakup.

Properly shutting down a DMSP satellite at the end of its service life is no guarantee that it won’t suffer a catastrophic breakup, however. In 2004,  a 13-year-old DMSP spacecraft, dubbed DMSP-F11, broke apart and  produced 56 pieces of cataloged space debris, even though it had been taken out of service and gone through the normal end-of-life showdown procedures.

Following the February 2015 breakup of DMSP F-13, the Air Force said a total of nine DMSP satellites launched between 1982 and 1997 all had the same failure-prone battery assembly. At the time, only seven were still in orbit. With the breakup of DMSP F-12, that number is down to six. Of those, only one — DMSP F-14 — is still in service.

The Air Force said determining the cause of DMSP F-12’s breakup will be especially difficult since they have no telemetry from the long-silent satellite to help assess the incident.

The Air Force still has five DMSP satellites in service. The youngest, DMSP F-18, was launched in 2009. The oldest, DMSP F-14, was launched in 1997.

In February, the DMSP suffered another setback when the Air Force lost the ability to command DMSP F-19 due to an onboard power failure. The satellite had been in orbit less than two years when the failure occurred.