After failing miserably on numerous occasions, North Korea has finally put a satellite in orbit. But according to US officials, it is now “tumbling out of control.” This is bad news and more bad news, covered in a double layer of extra bad news.
NORAD detected the launch yesterday at 7:49pm Eastern Time. The rocket passed over Japan on its way to orbit. Its first stage splashed down into the Yellow Sea, while the second one fell on the Philippine Sea. Soon after that, the United States and most countries with space tracking capabilities confirmed the launch success: whatever it was carrying, it reached orbit. According to Kim Jong-Un’s regime, it’s a “weather satellite” on a polar orbit, going in the same direction as an Earth meridian.
Except it’s really going any which way: talking to NBC News, US officials are saying that the “space object” is tumbling out of control.
The most obvious bad news is that this is quite dangerous, as this object has now become a collision risk to other satellites.
The first collision between two satellites happened in 2009, when an American 1,235-pound Iridium communications satellite—launched in 1997—collided with a dead 1-ton Russian satellite launched in 1993. At the time, NASA blamed the Russians.
The collision wasn’t only bad for the functioning Iridium, but also to everyone else. Space is a big place, but it’s full of trash. And like that accident proved, collisions happen.
We can track small pieces of debris, but space crashes generate particles that we can’t monitor. The thousands of objects that may result from such an accident put other satellites, spaceships and the lives of astronauts at risk.
The other bad news is that, while nobody really knows if this is a satellite or not, all countries are assuming it has been an attempt to disguise the test of a three-stage intercontinental ballistic missile. One that can easily reach the United States or Russia. And it worked.
The only bit of good news is that the lack of precision that probably led to a spinning satellite is proof of North Koreans’ ineptitude when it comes to design and control these long-range weapons. Putting an ICBM in space is not all you need to, say, drop a couple of nuclear warheads over Los Angeles. You need precision guiding systems for that, something that Kim Jong-Un’s boffins haven’t seemed to have mastered quite yet.
But then again, a nuclear warhead falling anywhere will definitely be very bad news anyway, no matter how precise it is.