By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - A U.S. military weather satellite appears to have exploded while in orbit last month after a sudden temperature spike in its power system, producing 43 pieces of new space debris, the Air Force said on Tuesday.
The blast, which was first reported by the industry trade publication Space News, was the second Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) spacecraft to experience a catastrophic breakup in 11 years.
Launched in 1995, the Air Force satellite was serving as an operational spare in the seven-member DMSP network.
On Feb. 3, flight controllers observed a sudden temperature spike in the DMSP-F13 satellite's power system and quickly shut down its non-essential systems, but the spacecraft lost the ability to position itself, the Air Force said in a statement.
At the same time, the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California began tracking a field of debris near the satellite, the Air Force said.
An investigation is underway.
"While the initial response is complete, (Space Operations) personnel will continue to assess this event to learn more about what happened," Air Force Colonel John Giles, the center's director, said in the statement.
The DMSP network provides global visible and infrared cloud imagery and other meteorological, oceanographic and solar data.
DMSP-F13, the oldest operational satellite in the 52-year-old network, was in a 497-mile (800 m) high polar orbit.
A sister satellite, DMSP-F11, exploded in 2004, generating 56 pieces of debris large enough to be tracked by ground-based radars. That satellite was not operational at the time.
(Editing by Jonathan Kaminsky and Paul Simao)