Decommissioned NOAA weather satellite crashes

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WASHINGTON — A polar-orbiting weather satellite decommissioned nearly eight years ago has disintegrated, adding to the growing population of debris in a key orbit.

The Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron said March 18 that it confirmed the breakup of the NOAA-17 satellite on March 10. The squadron said it was tracking 16 pieces of debris associated with the satellite and there was no evidence the breakup was caused by a collision.

In a statement to SpaceNews on March 19, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed that the satellite had broken up, after being informed of the incident by NASA’s Orbital Debris program office. “At this time, the debris poses little threat to the International Space Station or any other critical space asset,” NOAA said.

The spacecraft, originally designated NOAA-M, was launched in June 2002. The spacecraft was designed to operate for three years, but served in a primary or backup role for nearly 11 years until NOAA officially decommission it in April 2013.

Neither NOAA nor other agencies have disclosed the cause of the rupture. However, NOAA-17 is similar to other polar-orbiting satellites that have suffered ruptures. In November 2015, the NOAA-16 satellite crashed, nearly a year and a half after a “critical anomaly” ceased operations. Two satellites of the Air Force’s Defense Weather Satellite Program, DMSP F-13 and DMSP F-12, separated in February 2015 and October 2016, respectively,

The failure of the DMSP F-13 was blamed on a design flaw in the satellite’s battery that is also found on other DMSP satellites. These satellites, along with NOAA-15 and NOAA-17, were built by Lockheed Martin.

When NOAA decommissioned NOAA-17 in 2013, the agency said it performed a “deactivation process” with the spacecraft. In a statement to SpaceNews, NOAA said the process included disconnecting the spacecraft’s batteries as well as opening the thruster valves and turning off its transmitters. “These steps were taken to ensure the satellite was as inert as possible and to minimize the risk of radio frequency interference with other spacecraft after decommissioning,” NOAA said.

These activities are part of the federal government’s recommendations to passivate end-of-life spacecraft, eliminating energy sources that could cause explosions. “All sources of energy stored onboard a spacecraft or upper stage should be depleted or secured when no longer needed for mission operations or post-mission disposal,” said the US government. Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices Document States.

The fact that a satellite can still crash even after following these best practices shows the limitations of these guidelines. “I have no doubt that NOAA did what they could, and I think it’s more of a legacy satellite that was designed at a time when we really cared a lot about debris mitigation. “, said Brian Weeden, director of program planning at Secure. Global Foundation.

While NOAA has said the satellite does not pose a threat to the space station or “other critical space assets”, it is in a sun-synchronous orbit used by other weather and Earth observation spacecraft. .

Some of these satellites are not only threatened by such debris, but also pose a threat of creating more debris. Weeden noted a report by NASA’s Inspector General in January which found two polar-orbiting NASA missions, QuikSCAT and Terra, not only fail to meet the 25-year threshold for deorbiting spacecraft after their missions end, they also pose a risk of explosion in due to batteries that cannot be disconnected or propellant tanks that cannot be depressurized.

This report found that “mitigation only” activities to prevent the creation of new orbital debris were not sufficient to maintain the stability of the space environment. “Instead, to effectively address the problem of orbital debris, global mitigation and strategic remediation efforts are needed,” the report concludes, recommending that NASA support active debris removal efforts, including the financing of technologies enabling such systems.

Weeden agreed. “I hope this serves as yet another example of why the United States and other governments need to invest in active debris removal capabilities to take on legacy satellites that were never intended to comply with debris mitigation guidelines and remove them from orbit.”

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