North Korea may have successfully launched a satellite into orbit, as reported last week, but it might as well have deployed a pile of scrap metal, US-based astroboffins say.
"It's clear that the rocket part of this mission worked very well for the North Koreans," Harvard astronomer John McDowell told The New York Times. "They ended up in the right orbit. But the preponderance of the evidence suggests that the satellite failed either during the ascent or shortly afterwards."
As of Monday, scientists had not picked up any transmissions from the North Korean satellite, McDowell said, and it's believed the device is tumbling in an uncontrolled orbit, spinning end over end, indicating that it's not responding to commands from its minders.
The satellite is thought to house a camera for observing the Earth, but such an instrument would be useless unless deployed in a stable orbit.
North Korean media has portrayed the launch, which took place last Wednesday, as an unqualified success, claiming it as a scientific and technological achievement undertaken at the behest of the country's former leader, the late Kim Jong-Il.
Previous attempts had not fared as well. A rocket launched in April flew for just two minutes before breaking up and falling into the ocean.
But the relative success of last week's launch has not pleased officials in the US and elsewhere, who regard North Korea's space program as a thinly veiled effort to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile.
North Korea is barred from developing missile and nuclear weapons technology by UN rules, concessions that the isolated and impoverished nation has made in exchange for foreign aid.
Some experts believe that by launching a rocket now, North Korea's young new leader and sexiest man alive, Kim Jong-Un, hopes to gain a new bargaining chip for future negotiations.
That plan may backfire, however, because even China – North Korea's only significant diplomatic ally – has reportedly expressed its regret over the launch.
How credible a military threat North Korea's latest rocket represents is up for debate. Although successfully orbiting a satellite indicates a significant advancement of North Korea's rocket technology, the country is still believed to be a long way from developing an effective long-range ballistic missile.
Launching a rocket into orbit is one thing. Striking a target is another, and the fact that Pyongyang's spy satellite appears to be inactive suggests that it still lacks the technology necessary for controlled re-entry.
The dead device could represent a threat of another kind, however, in that its uncontrolled orbit makes it a hazard to other satellites. Even tiny pieces of orbital debris can cause significant damage, and North Korea's satellite – which is orbiting at a rate of around 4.7 miles per second – is said to be about the size of a washing machine.
Had the satellite been deployed successfully, however, any nighttime photos it took would have revealed what more advanced countries have long known: that North Korea remains a backward, poverty-stricken nation, where such basic technologies as electric lighting are reserved for an elite few. ®