Reports: Kwangmyongsong-4 tumbling in orbit

A North Korean rocket blasts off from Sohae Satellite Launching Center on Feb. 7, 2016, in this image broadcast on KCTV (Photo: KCTV/North Korea Tech)

It might have happened again.

According to a CBS News report that quotes unnamed “U.S. officials,” North Korea’s Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite is tumbling as it orbits the planet. CNN quotes “a senior U.S. defense official” as saying the same thing.

There’s no word on how the U.S. came to this conclusion, but it was likely spotted by ground-based systems or photographed by a U.S. intelligence satellite.

Whatever the method used to gather the evidence, the verdict is damning.

It indicates scientists have been unable to control it, and unless they somehow manage to regain control and steady the satellite, it will be useless.

The same thing happened with Kwangmyongsong 3-2, North Korea’s first satellite that was launched in December 2012. It tumbled as it orbited Earth and no signals have ever been detected from it.

North Korea has said both are earth observation satellites — a catch-all phrase that covers everything from weather satellites to spy satellites. For those to be useful, they need to remain steady in orbit so the camera — and whatever other sensing gear is on board — is kept pointed at the Earth.

A picture of the satellite hasn’t been released by North Korean media, but its solar panels are likely positioned so they are illuminated by the sun in a certain configuration and communications antennae are probably placed so they can send a strong signal downwards.

All of this is based on the satellite sitting steadily in orbit. If a satellite is tumbling, it all gets messed up.