Weather Satellite Breakup No Big Risk to Nearby ESA Missions

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WASHINGTON — Space debris experts at the European Space Agency said March 4 that they have concluded the explosive breakup of a U.S. Air Force weather satellite last month does not present a threat to nearby ESA spacecraft.

The Feb. 3 explosion aboard the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Flight 13 (DMSP-F13) satellite, which experts suspect was caused by a catastrophic failure of the 20-year-old spaceraft’s onboard battery, added at least 46 pieces of trackable debris to its 800-kilometer sun-synchronous polar orbit.

“The event is not considered major,” Holger Krag of ESA’s Space Debris Office said in a statement. “Should the reported number of fragments stabilise at this level, we can consider it to be within the range of the past 250 on-orbit fragmentation events.

“For our missions – with CryoSat-2 being closest to the event altitude – we do not expect any meaningful risk due to the event.”

CryoSat-2 was launched in 2010 to study the polar ice caps. Its orbit is about 100 kilometers below DMSP-F13’s orbit.

ESA’s Space Debris Office in Darmstadt, Germany, receives debris data from the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center, which on Feb. 3 identified a debris field near DMSP-F13 at approximately the same time that DMSP operators discovered a sudden spike in temperature in the the satellite’s power subsystem.

“The dispersion of the fragments associated with the DMSP-13 event is fairly large, however, and the largest concentration of fragments resides near the altitude in which the satellite operated,” ESA said in its statement.

“The fragments will slowly decay over the years and decades to come.”

Cryosat-2 is part of an international constellation of ice-mapping satellites. Credit: NASA
CryoSat-2 orbits the poles at 717 kilometers. Although NASA’s ICESat satellite re-entered the atmosphere in 2010, the ICESat-2 follow-on mission is now slated to launch in 2017. Credit: NASA