A North Korean satellite launched into space last week appears to be malfunctioning, but could remain in orbit for several years, a leading expert in the US said yesterday.
North Korea says the satellite is working. US officials have said it is tumbling in orbit, but even so, its successful launch into space marks a milestone in impoverished North Korea’s technological advances, especially given accusations that the rocket launch was actually a test of systems that could be used to launch long-range missiles targeting the US.
Data from trackers in South Africa and Britain suggest the brightness of the satellite has been fluctuating, which indicates it is tumbling as it orbits. That likely means a malfunction in the probe’s stabilizers because it was designed to constantly point toward Earth.
Even so, the probe is continuing to complete orbits and could do so for several years, Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said. McDowell added that since the cause of the malfunction remains unclear, it is conceivable that North Korea could determine how to fix it and regain control.
“The best guess at this point is that it is probably broken,’” he said by telephone from Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It is certainly continuing to complete orbits. It is up there and it will be up there for years, but the thing is sort of twirling around. It seems to me the satellite is not working.”
Pyongyang has hailed the launch as a gift to the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, and as proof that his son, and current North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un has the strength and vision to lead the country.
State news agency KCNA said that the satellite is transmitting signals of revolutionary hymns such as Song of General Kim Il-sung, referring to the founder of North Korea, who is the grandfather of Kim Jong-un.
The US, Japan, Britain and others see the launch as a provocation and violation of UN Security Council resolutions banning North Korea from developing its nuclear and missile programs. The Security Council has said it would urgently consider “an appropriate response.”
“This launch is about a weapons program, not peaceful use of space,” US Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Even the North’s most important ally, China, expressed regret.
Though missile and satellite launch technologies overlap significantly, and Pyongyang is clearly hoping to use the rocket launches to develop a deployable nuclear-tipped missile capable of threatening the US, McDowell said its apparent success in getting the satellite into orbit may cloud efforts to further punish the North.
“For North Korea, it lets them say to their people that they are an advanced 21st century country, although they can’t feed their people,” he said.
“They can say that this was not a missile, it was a satellite launch. That gives them potentially more credibility on the international stage that they are being unfairly treated,” McDowell added.