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North Korea's satellite may be dead in orbit, astronomers say

December 18, 2012|By Amina Khan
  • South Korean sailors in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, stand guard near recovered debris believed to be a fuel container of the first-stage rocket from North Korea's recent launch.
South Korean sailors in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, stand guard near recovered… (Shin Young-gun / Yonhap…)

Is North Korea’s satellite dead in orbit? Launched last week, the spacecraft seems to be tumbling overhead, according to astronomers keeping track of the device.

“At this stage I’m getting a bit skeptical,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said in an interview.  “I would start to be mildly surprised if the satellite is really working.”

Retired astronomer Greg Roberts in Cape Town, South Africa, measured the light coming from the satellite orbiting roughly 300 miles above the Earth's surface and found that it seems to grow bright and dim by turns, indicating that it’s spinning as it flies through space, McDowell said. If the satellite were working, it probably wouldn't spin -- it would have to keep the one side of its body with its camera pointed consistently at Earth.

What’s more, trackers looking for the patriotic songs that were supposed to be broadcast from the satellite have yet to pick up the signal, he added.

But the mere fact that the spacecraft made it to orbit is probably success enough for North Korean leaders, McDowell said.

“In any case, they have joined the club of space-faring nations,” McDowell said. “That is the main point for them, for this launch.”

The rocket launch that sent the satellite into space, said to honor the first anniversary of the death of the country’s longtime leader, Kim Jong Il, was carried out in spite of criticism from the United States and other countries that viewed the launch as a cover for testing ballistic missile technology, according to CNN.

The satellite will probably remain in orbit for the next few years before it falls into the lower atmosphere, McDowell said, “and it will just completely burn up when that happens.”

Follow me on Twitter @aminawrite.

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