Air Force Says DMSP-19 Weather Satellite Is 'About Dead'

DMSP-19 weather satellite illustration
According to General John Hyten, the head of Air Force Space Command, the weather satellite launched by the Pentagon in April 2014 is "about dead." (Image credit: U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON — The head of Air Force Space Command told lawmakers March 15 that a two-year-old weather satellite is "about dead" and that the Air Force does not expect the satellite to return to operations.

"It doesn't look like we're going to get it back," Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, told reporters.

NOAA satellite operators unexpectedly lost the ability to command the Air Force's Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Flight 19 on Feb. 11. The satellite, built by Lockheed Martin, is used to help weather forecasters predict fog, thunderstorms and hurricanes that could impact military operations. Launched in April 2014, the spacecraft is the Air Force's newest weather satellite on orbit and had a five-year design life. [See launch photos for the DMSP-19 weather satellite]

Hyten told reporters he expects to make a final determination on the satellite as soon this week.

The loss of the satellite further complicates the Air Force's weather satellite outlook. For more than year, Air Force officials have been struggling to determine where they would receive comparable data.

Hyten told lawmakers March 5 during a hearing of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, that "in a perfect world, I would prefer to launch DMSP-20," referring to DMSP-19's twin.

In December, Congress terminated the DMSP program and stripped funding for the Air Force to launch the Flight 20 satellite. That satellite, built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, has been in storage in Sunnyvale, California, at a cost of about $40 million per year.

Hyten said the Air Force's schedule for disposing of DMSP-20 and closing the books on the program by a December deadline calls for removing the satellite from storage by June 20, a date he described as a "point of no return."

Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, the commander of the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center, said in a March 14 email to SpaceNews that while the Defense Department expects to complete the termination of the DMSP program by Dec. 20, he directed the program office "to take no irreversible action for the moment in order to allow the Air Force, DoD, and Congress an opportunity, if desired, to potentially evaluate the situation."

Removing the satellite from its environmentally controlled storage facility is considered an irreversible action because of the payload contamination that would occur.

Hyten also said Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, directed the Air Force in the last week to look into potential weather gaps related to the data DMSP provides and to report back by May 1 on whether the satellite program is meeting its current Defense Department requirements.

The DMSP constellation requires at least two primary satellites and two backup satellites to gather cloud imagery. As a result of the problem, the Air Force has reassigned an older satellite, DMSP Flight 17, which launched in 2006 and had been serving as a backup, into a primary role.

This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

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Editor-in-Chief, Sightline Media

Mike Gruss is a veteran defense reporter and Editor-in-Chief of Sightline Media Group, which includes Army Times, Air Force Times, Dense News, Military Times and Navy Times. From 2013 to 2016, Mike served as a Senior Staff Writer for SpaceNews covering national security space programs and military space policy in the U.S. Congress. Mike earned a bachelor's degree in English and American Studies from Miami University and has previously wrote for the Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Indiana and the Virginian-Pilot in Virginia before joining SpaceNews. Prior to joining Sightline in 2017, he was a senior editor of FedTech magazine covering technology in federal government. You can see Mike's latest project on Twitter.