A U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite retired in 2014 has suffered an apparent breakup, the second time in less than a year that a polar-orbiting weather satellite has generated orbital debris. The Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) announced Nov. 25 that it had identified a possible breakup of the NOAA 16 satellite. The center, which tracks objects in orbit and warns of potential collisions, said it first detected the breakup at 3:41 a.m. Eastern time and was tracking an unspecified number of “associated objects” in the orbit of NOAA 16.
The debris event was identified in an orbit of 841 by 857 Kilometers. No data on the number and orbits of the debris was available in the immediate aftermath of the event, but the debris were added to conjunction assessment screenings to provide information to satellite operators of possible close approaches between debris and active satellites.
None of the identified objects posed an immediate threat to active satellites. There were no indications that a collision was the cause of the breakup.
After more than 13 years of helping predict weather and climate patterns and save lives in search and rescue operations, NOAA announced in June 2014 it has turned off the NOAA 16 Polar-Orbiting Environmental Satellite (POES). It was one of NOAA's longest operating spacecraft, which have a planned lifespan of three to five years.
NOAA 16 was launched in 2000 and replaced by NOAA 18 as the primary POES satellite in 2005.
“NOAA 16 helped our forecasters detect the early stages of severe weather from tornadoes and snow storms to hurricanes, including the busiest hurricane season on record – 2005,” said Mary Kicza, assistant administrator of NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service. “NOAA 16’s long life is a credit to the engineers, who built and operated it and the technology that sustained it."