spaceSpace and Physics

North Korean Satellite Was "Tumbling Out Of Control" But Is Now Stable, Say Officials


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

1222 North Korean Satellite Was "Tumbling Out Of Control" But Is Now Stable, Say Officials
A still from a video showing the satellite in orbit. Korean Central Television/YouTube

Earlier this week, North Korea claimed to have sent a satellite into orbit, a move that was widely condemned around the world as being a disguised test of ballistic missile technology. And while initially it seemed the satellite was inoperable, its orbit now seems to have been stabilized – suggesting this is North Korea’s most successful satellite yet.

An unnamed senior U.S. defense official told CNN earlier this week that the Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite was “tumbling in orbit,” meaning it was not able to perform any functions and was essentially useless. But yesterday, Reuters reported another official as saying: “It’s in a stable orbit now. They got the tumbling under control.”


The satellite, in a polar orbit at a height of about 500 kilometers (310 miles), still doesn’t seem to be broadcasting any signals, suggesting it is not quite in full operation yet. The last satellite launched by North Korea, in December 2012, experienced similar problems and was not able to recover in that instance. If this satellite is indeed stable, and communication can be opened, it would be a significant step forward for the isolated nation.



The video above is a replay of the launch from North Korean state television. Korean Central Television/YouTube


According to Ars Technica, the Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite is an Earth observation satellite intended to monitor agricultural output. The launch seems to have been timed to coincide with the birthday of the late leader Kim Jong-il on February 16, while the satellite also flew over the U.S. at the culmination of the latest Super Bowl.

While the satellite is stable for now, experts are continuing to monitor its orbit, to look for any major changes in its inclination. “If we see a dramatic change in altitude that could mean [the orbit] is going to decay,” said Martin O’Donnell, a spokesman for the U.S. Strategic Command, reported The Guardian, suggesting it would re-enter the atmosphere and burn up.

North Korea continues to maintain that the launch was for peaceful scientific purposes, despite claims from others that the isolated country was flouting a ban on testing missile technology. Following the launch, South Korea said they had found debris thought to be from the spent rocket booster used to take the satellite into orbit, which will be analyzed.


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