Defense Meteorological Satellite System (DMSP).
Defense Meteorological Satellite System (DMSP) spacecraft. (US Air Force)

A weather satellite providing real-time weather reports to the US Navy and Air Force shattered into 43 fragments.

The 20-year-old Defence Meteorological Satellite Progam Flight 13 (DMSP-F13) is said to have suffered a "catastrophic event", according to the US Air Force.

The satellite exploded into 43 pieces after a sudden spike in temperature, triggering an "unrecoverable loss of attitude control".

The incident was not revealed to the public even though it happened on 3 February. Details of the event were only publicised after questions were asked by the Space News website.

The first public indication of a problem with DMSP-F13 came from T.S. Kelso, a senior research astrodynamicist for Analytical Graphics' Center for Space Standards and Innovation in Colorado. He noted 25 Februrary that there had been "another debris event with 26 new pieces".

DMSP-13, the oldest continuously operational satellite in the DMSP weather constellation, was in a backup role and its dramatic end is unlikely to have had a major repercussions on US weather forecasting operations.

However it is believed that there are some issues with real-time weather data transmission as a result of it no longer functioning.

The satellite was launched in 1995 and provides weather imagery to Air Force and Navy forecasters.

A new satellite is scheduled for a 2016 launch to join the other six DMSPs which are in orbit.