Disappearing weather satellite shatters in Earth orbit

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A US weather satellite that retired eight years ago has crashed in orbit, shattering at least 43 pieces of space debrisaccording to government officials.

The satellite, dubbed NOAA-17 after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that operated it, was launched in 2002 and was taken out of service in 2013 after its instruments began to fail. NOAA-17 separated on March 10 at 03:11 a.m. EDT (0711 GMT), according to the California-based Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron, as did first reported by SpaceNews (opens in a new tab).

“At this time, the debris poses little threat to the International Space Station or any other critical space asset,” NOAA officials wrote in a statement.

Related: How Tiny Space Debris Causes Incredible Damage

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The 18th Space Control Squadron noted in a tweet (opens in a new tab) published Thursday March 18 that there is no sign that a collision triggered the breakup of the satellite. NOAA did not provide any details on the cause of the incident. Initial reports noted that the rupture created 16 pieces of debris; in an email to Space.com on March 25, a representative from Space Operations Command-West said the 18th Space Control Squadron was tracking a total of 43 pieces of the satellite.

NOAA-17 was part of a suite of satellites launched by the agency to monitor weather conditions, constantly watching a strip of Earth experiencing morning conditions, according to the agency. During its operations, NOAA-17 orbited the Earth from pole to pole at an altitude of approximately 500 miles (800 kilometers), according to the World Meteorological Organization (opens in a new tab).

The International Space Station zooms around the Earth at an average altitude of about 250 miles (400 km).

Although the satellite has a design life of three years, according to NOAA, the agency was able to use NOAA-17 for almost 11 years before retiring it in April 2013 due to instrument failures. At that time, spacecraft officials took several steps to reduce the chance of interference with other satellites, according to a NOAA release on the breakup this month.

“When it was taken out of service, NOAA satellite operations turned off all spacecraft transmitters, disconnected batteries, opened thruster valves to deplete nitrogen, and pointed the solar array away from the sun,” agency officials wrote. “These measures were taken to ensure that the satellite was as inert as possible and to minimize the risk of radio frequency interference with other spacecraft after decommissioning.”

The satellite’s predecessor, NOAA-16launched in 2000 and operated for nearly 14 years, suffered the same fate in 2015.

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Coincidentally, the 18th Space Control Squadron spotted the burst of another weather satellite on Thursday, this time from China’s Yunhai 1-02, which was launched in September 2019. The squadron is tracking 21 debris from the incident, according to a statement (opens in a new tab).

The more technological elements there are in space – operational or not – the greater the risk that some will collide. And due to the incredibly high speeds of objects orbiting Earth, such collisions tend to create a pile of debris that can then trigger additional impacts. International Best Practices for Satellite Operations (opens in a new tab) call for firing a spacecraft far enough for Earth’s atmosphere to destroy it in about 25 years.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on March 25 to add the time of the rupture and an updated count of tracked debris. Email Meghan Bartels at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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