Decommissioned NOAA-17 Satellite Breaks Up In Orbit

One of the biggest concerns about space junk and decommissioned satellites orbiting the earth is a collision. It appears that satellites are moving very slowly when we see them on video taken from spacecraft or the ISS shared by NASA. However, satellites are orbiting at extremely high velocities, and even the smallest amount of debris can cause catastrophic consequences to other satellites, the ISS, and its crew members. Recently, the NOAA-17 satellite that was decommissioned in 2013 broke up in orbit.

The US Space Force 18th Space Control Squadron announced on March 18 that it had confirmed the satellite had broken up on March 10. According to the squadron, it was tracking 16 pieces of debris that were associated with the satellite. The squadron was also clear that there was no evidence a collision caused the breakup.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has confirmed that the satellite broke up, and the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office had notified it. NOAA says there is no threat posed to the ISS or other critical space assets by the debris at this time. The satellite in question was originally designated NOAA-M and launched in June 2002.

It was in operation for 11 years until its formal decommissioning in April 2013. There is no word right now on what exactly caused the satellite to break up in orbit. Steps were taken in 2013 when the satellite was decommissioned to render it as inert as possible. The team operating the satellite followed the federal government's recommendations to passivate spacecraft at the end of their lives by removing energy sources that could lead to explosions.

Some are using the breakup of the satellite in orbit as another example of why governments worldwide need to invest in active debris removal capability to take old satellites out of orbit where they pose no risk of harm. Simply pushing the satellites into the Earth's atmosphere would lead to them burning up harmlessly during reentry.