Unresponsive Satellite Can’t Be Fixed or Recovered: Air Force

This image of Earth's city lights was created June 25, 2011, with data from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) Operational Linescan System. (Image courtesy NASA)This image of Earth's city lights was created June 25, 2011, with data from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) Operational Linescan System. (Image courtesy NASA)

Another Pentagon satellite has been lost to space.

That’s the conclusion of the U.S. Air Force, which recently investigated what went wrong with the newest weather satellite in the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program.

Launched in 2014 and built by Lockheed Martin Corp., the spacecraft known as DMSP Flight 19 (DMSP-F19) experienced an anomaly on Feb. 11 and stopped responding to commands. The problem was traced to a power failure affecting cryptographic equipment within the command and control system. And because both sides of the system were impacted, there is no backup recovery option, according to a statement released Monday from Air Force Space Command.

“The satellite is not repairable and no further action will be taken to recover it,” the release states.

While the satellite remains in a stable configuration and is still relaying real-time tactical data to users, the quality of information will degrade as the spacecraft’s “pointing accuracy” deteriorates, according to the Air Force. It wasn’t immediately clear when the data will become unusable.

Due to the incident, the Air Force now has a total of five working satellites in the program, which is managed by Air Force Space Command and operated by the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The once-classified effort dates to the 1960s and, among other things, helps generate terrestrial and space weather data for operational forces worldwide.

The program has run into problems before. An older satellite, DMSP-F13, blew up in February 2015 after a battery failed, creating tens of thousands of pieces of small debris and a potential problem for other satellites operating in sun-synchronous polar orbits.

The newer satellite “remains in a safe and stable configuration and there have been no ejection or break-up type events,” according to the Air Force. “The operations team is still in contact with the vehicle and will continue to monitor and gather telemetry as long as the vehicle remains pointed toward the earth.”

To minimize disruption to the program’s mission, the service has designated older satellites DMSP- F17 and DMSP-F18, launched in 2006 and 2009, respectively, as primary constellation satellites.

“At this time, there is no impact to the Department of Defense core weather sensing mission, and the DMSP constellation remains able to support mission requirements through resilient systems and processes,” the release states.

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Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.