On Wednesday, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) succeeded, in its fifth attempt since 1998, in launching a satellite into orbit. The satellite was carried aloft by a three-stage rocket, and, according to the Associated Press, “South Korea’s Defence Ministry said Thursday the satellite is orbiting normally at a speed of 7.6 kilometres per second, though it’s not known what mission it is performing. North Korean space officials say the satellite would be used to study crops and weather patterns.”
The launch was met with harsh criticisms from the international community: ”The US and its allies view the launch as a disguised test of ballistic missile technology. North Korea says its aim was to launch a satellite,” reports the BBC. The United Nations Security Council called the launch “a clear violation of Security Council resolutions.”
Whatever the motivation behind North Korea’s actions, the result is that there is a new satellite orbiting above the Earth. The problem, though, says NBC News, is that, rather than traveling smoothly above the planet, the satellite is instead “tumbling out of control.”
The risk, as noted by Gizmodo, is that an out-of-control satellite could wreak havoc on the increasingly-populated space around Earth.
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 greater worry is that a serious collision could trigger a sequence of events that would be catastrophic for all human exploration of space—a chain reaction known as Kessler syndrome. A few months ago, science writer and astronomer Stuart Clark described how this could happen:
, NASA employee Donald Kessler, together with colleague Burton Cour-Palais, proposed that as the number of satellites rose, so would the risk of accidental collisions. The resulting debris would take out further satellites, sparking a chain reaction that would swiftly encircle the planet with a vast cloud of debris. Orbits would then become unusable because anything placed up there would be sandblasted into smithereens, exacerbating the problem. Eventually our access to space would be lost.
Kinda like this, but with satellites:
So, if North Korea’s satellite is indeed out of control, with no way to either stabilize it or nudge it into the atmosphere, it could become a liability to the activities of all space-faring nations.