An illustration of the family of NOAA polar-orbiting weather satellites that includes NOAA 16, which suffered an apparent breakup Nov. 25. Credit: NOAA

This story was updated Dec. 3 at 1:04 p.m. Eastern

LONDON — A U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite retired in 2014 has suffered an apparent breakup, the second time in less than a year that a polar-orbiting weather satellite has generated orbital debris.

The Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) announced Nov. 25 that it had identified a possible breakup of the NOAA 16 Polar-Orbting Environmental Satellite. The center, which tracks objects in orbit and warns of potential collisions, said it first detected the breakup at 3:41 a.m. Eastern time and was tracking an unspecified number of “associated objects” in the orbit of NOAA 16.

JSpOC said later Nov. 25 that the debris from NOAA 16 posed no current threat to other satellites in orbit. It added that it did not believe the debris resulted from a collision with another object, suggesting that NOAA 16 broke up on its own.

NOAA 16 launched in September 2000 with a planned lifetime of three to five years. The spacecraft continued to operate in a backup role until June 2014, when NOAA retired the spacecraft after an unspecified “critical anomaly.”

The breakup, if confirmed, would be the second time in less than a year for a satellite in polar orbit. In February, the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Flight 13 satellite exploded in orbit, creating several dozen pieces of debris. A sudden temperature spike in that spacecraft led spacecraft engineers to conclude a battery in the spacecraft ruptured because of a design flaw. Seven other DMSP spacecraft have a similar design flaw.

NOAA 16, like the final series of DMSP satellites, was built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems in the 1990s and may have used the same trouble-prone battery charge assembly implicated in the DMSP F13 explosion. The Air Force’s DMSP F13 failure report, released in July, noted that the battery design  was used on 14 DMSP satellites launched between 1976 and 1997 and an unspecified number of NOAA’s TIROS polar-orbiting spacecraft, including NOAA 13, which shut down in 1993 “due to a full battery discharge.”

NOAA 16, like NOAA 13, was built as part of the Advanced TIROS-N series of satellites, the last of which — NOAA 19 — was launched in 2009.

NOAA spokesman John Leslie could not confirm whether all of the Advanced TIROS-N spacecraft used the same battery charge assembly blamed for the DMSP F13 explosion and implicated in NOAA 13’s battery failure.  “We are attempting to verify this is the same battery, but this is not confirmed,” Leslie said Dec. 3, adding that NOAA is “actively investigating” the matter with NASA — who oversaw the satellites’ development — and engaging with the Air Force.

Lockheed Martin spokesman Gary Napier deferred to NOAA for questions about NOAA 16.

NOAA has three Advanced TIROS-N series satellites in service: NOAA 15, NOAA 18, and NOAA 19.

Orbital debris mitigation guidelines developed by the U.S. government recommend removing all sources of on-board energy on a spacecraft, including venting propellant tanks and discharging batteries, when a spacecraft reaches the end of its mission. It’s not clear if spacecraft controllers were able to carry out those procedures when the NOAA 16 spacecraft encountered its mission-ending anomaly last year. Editor Brian Berger contributed to this story from Washington. 

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...