Photo: Real Time Satellite Tracking
Following North Korea’s missile success earlier this week, U.S. officials told NBC late yesterday that Pyongyang’s space vehicle is “spinning out of control” above the earth.The satellite was placed in a low earth orbit Wednesday and has been cruising pole-to-pole ever since.
South Korea has now come out saying NBC’s comments are wrong, the satellite is in fact orbiting normally via AP/ABC.
Conflicting statements, but we’ll fill in some gaps and let you decide if the KWANGMYONGSONG is in trouble.
A bit of digging earlier this morning turned up a Reddit thread with a group tracking the KWANGMYONGSONG 3 in real time that led to some hard facts.
Real Time Satellite Tracking (RTST) says the ‘SONG 3 is an observation satellite designed for weather purposes, according to the DPRK and lists a NORAD ID of 39026 on the object as it travels southwest over Africa at 2:21 a.m. EDT.
A NORAD ID is a 5-digit number assigned by USSPACECOM to all Earth orbiting satellites for identification. RTST is tracking elevation, speed, and azimuth in addition to many other variables and whether it’s spinning is unclear, but it is maintaining a stable altitude of about 330 miles up and a near constant speed of about 5 miles per second. Not necessarily “out of control” indicators.
The tracking link is hosted by ITPROSTAR a geospatial web development team in Northern Virginia, specializing in real time satellite tracking. They cite NASA, CNN, and the European Space Agency as “Existing or past customers”. And offer a listing of other sites, so on the surface they seem legit, which implies the tracking data should be sound.
Back on Reddit, the thread hosts this comment, entertaining problems and outcomes.
Satellite engineer here – from what they are saying they are likely unable to command the satellite (I take that from ‘out of control’). I don’t know anything about their satellite but it is possible to fix a satellite that is tumbling (one of our recent (3-4 yrs?) satellites was tumbling a bit due to a launch vehicle issue, but we were able to save it).
If they are unable to get control of the satellite, the orbit will decay in a matter of hours/days.
If it burns up in the atmosphere it could create an issue, as the fuel typically contained (again, we don’t have any idea what is inside the thing) is incredibly toxic.
Side note/more info: satellites require constant station keeping and attitude adjustment to maintain their orbit. This two things requires the satellite to not be spinning. if they can determine exactly how it is spinning, it is possible to command the thrusters to fix the tumble. But we don’t even know if the satellite is working or if it has enough power in the batteries to keep it on for long enough to solve the problem. (you can’t deploy solar arrays if its tumbling.)
Of course, that’s just speculation at this point. But another concern being raised is even more sinister.
Photo: Real Time Satellite Tracking
Any threat of an uncontrolled object bouncing through satellite fields brings up Kessler Syndrome, which was proposed by NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler in 1978. Kessler suggested low earth orbit is so crowded that one “fender bender” between two satellites could start a cascade effect.
Basically the communication satellites would start careening off one another until the global satellite network was dead. On a high note, Kessler concludes this scenario could render space exploration and the use of satellites unlikely for generations.
Outlets citing the “out of control” theory are also mentioning the 2009 debacle where a Russian and U.S. satellite unexpectedly crashed. That was the first collision between two spacecraft, but collisions between random objects and detritus are a bit more common.
It is not terribly uncrowded up there with about 17,000 pieces of manmade debris orbiting the earth at large. Where the North Korean satellite orbits is about within the Iridium satellite constellation where the last crash occurred.
Huffington Post reports, “Iridium Holdings LLC has a system of 65 active satellites that relay calls from portable phones that are about twice the size of a regular mobile phone. It has more than 300,000 subscribers. The U.S. Department of defence is one of its largest customers.”
No doubt that customer is going to be keeping a very close ete on the ‘Song and we’ll report any updates as they occur.
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