One of two experimental U.S. Air Force upper-atmosphere-monitoring satellites that launched in 2013 but quickly began having problems re-entered and burned up March 21, service officials said.

The Space Environmental NanoSatellite Experiment, or SENSE, was designed to collect data to help characterize and forecast changes in the ionosphere. Understanding upper atmospheric conditions is important to the Air Force because they can affect GPS signals from space.

In a response to SpaceNews questions that came 28 days after they were submitted, Air Force spokeswoman Peggy Hodge said the nanosatellites successfully collected GPS occultation data, which are currently being evaluated by the Stanford Research Institute and the Aerospace Corp. The experiment also helped “prove out” the cubesat format for weather satellite missions, she said.

Air Force officials continue working with the satellite still on orbit, which “experienced a critical solar array deployment failure” upon launch, Hodge said. The satellite has had “severely limited” capability, Hodge said.

The service previously said it was planning to award SENSE satellite manufacturer Boeing a $400,000 contract to develop software to fix the problem. It was not clear at press time whether that contract had been awarded or affected by the re-entry.

The SENSE satellites launched aboard a Minotaur 1 rocket in November 2013 as part of the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space 3 mission, which included 28 experimental satellites. Before the launch, Boeing cited the satellites as an example of a low-cost space solution featuring a modular design and commercial off-the-shelf components.


Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.