The Short, Turbulent Life of North Korea's Doomed Satellite

North Korea's latest satellite is in and out of control not talking to Earth.

North Korean Central TV

North Korea launched a long-range rocket on Sunday, releasing what officials called a “fascinating vapor” into the sky. Kim Jong-un’s favorite North Korean broadcaster Ri Chun-hee announced it as “a complete success,” having placed the country’s “newly developed earth observation satellite Kwangmyongsong-4 into orbit.”

But the controversial satellite, which some think is just a cover for illegal nuclear weapons tests, has been tumbling around in space ever since, every so often stabilizing before wilin’ out. The latest update is that it’s stable again. But the useless piece of metal isn’t transmitting anything back to Earth, say United States sources.

If North Korea’s satellite stumbles into any of the more than 1,700 other satellites orbiting our planet, there could be a serious celestial brawl. The worst-case scenario begins with an altercation after one satellite, perhaps North Korea’s Kwangmyongsong-4, bumps into another. This collision would make a pretty big mess: The resulting cloud of debris could trigger a chain of future collisions that would continue until a messy cloud of human-made space junk surrounds the Earth. Oh, and it would stay there indefinitely, until someone could figure out how to clean it all up. It’s called the Kessler Syndrome, and it’s some serious ish.

Earthlings could potentially be walking around lost, bored, and stuck in the rain without umbrellas because satellites that provide GPS, television, and weather forecasts could be toast — all because one little satellite couldn’t handle its orbit.

North Korea isn’t new to sending out satellites that could “ruin space for everyone,” in the words of one journalist. They sent out another sloppy satellite back in 2012.

However, North Korea’s not the only country to lose control of a satellite either. A Russian satellite carrying geckos meant for a sex experiment, fruit flies, and mushrooms stopped responding to ground control in 2014, and last year EgyptSat 2 quit responding for at least 16 days.

So what normally happens when a satellite loses control?

If the satellite slows down or runs out of fuel, it will start to deteriorate in the atmosphere or fall to Earth. Where it could fall isn’t totally certain, but it’s not that big of deal because chances are it will burn up in the earth’s atmosphere.

If a satellite is under control, scientists can accurately predict where to look for their flashing lights in the night sky. This video shows what happens when sunlight reflects off satellites, an event called an Iridium flare.