CelesTrak, a civilian company, was the first to notice the explosion, which was later confirmed by the U.S. Air Force. The satellite was once a secret, but had become an ageing part of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program. The U.S. military started work on the program back in the 1960s in order to aid reconnaissance and surveillance missions, writes Matthew Sparkes for The Telegraph.
Air Force tracking satellite debris
Civilian scientists were able to use data collected by the system since it was declassified in 1972, and this particular satellite had been in orbit since 1995. Its long life sadly came to an end in a “catastrophic event” caused by “a sudden spike in temperature” and the consequent “unrecoverable loss of altitude control.”
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Operators were considering how to handle the developing situation but could not act before the satellite was destroyed, leaving behind a cloud of debris. The U.S. Air Force is now tracking at least 43 pieces of debris that were scattered into varying different orbits.
Air Force Col. John Giles, the Joint Space Operations Center’s director, said: “While the initial response is complete, JSpOC personnel will continue to assess this event to learn more about what happened and what it will mean for users within this orbit.”
At the time of writing it had been speculated that a power system failure was responsible for causing the explosion.
Operations not unduly affected
The age of the satellite meant that it was no longer playing a crucial role in the network, and government sources have claimed that the loss should only result in a “slight reduction” in the collection of real-time weather data.
The sadly deceased satellite orbited the Earth around 500 miles above its surface in a “sun-synchronous orbit,” which means it flies directly over the north and south poles.
Each orbit would take around 101 minutes, and the satellite would see a slightly different part of the planet each time. As a result each satellite would see the entire surface of the planet twice a day.