US official says North Korea "might not have full control" over satellite

Korean ground control apparently never sent satellite a critical startup signal that is needed to power up the electronics

Thursday, December 13, 2012 - 9:00pm

There were preliminary signs on Wednesday that North Korea may not be in total control of a satellite less than 24 hours after it was blasted into orbit, a U.S. official told CNN.

"There are some initial indications they might not have full control," the official said of the device that was the payload for North Korea's first successful long-range rocket launch.

The official, who has access to the latest U.S. assessment, declined to be identified by name due to the sensitive nature of the information.

The satellite, described by one U.S. defense official as a rudimentary communications satellite with limited capability, is on a Polar orbit, meaning it is moving between the North and South poles.

Since there are issues about control, the United States is not certain the satellite is in a fully stable orbit.

"We don't know. We are still trying to figure that out," the U.S. official said.

However, he also cautioned the satellite could stay in its relatively low altitude orbit for months before either burning up or falling back to Earth.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta alluded to the problem in an interview Wednesday that was to air on CNN's 'Erin Burnett OutFront."

"I think we still have to assess exactly what happened here," Panetta told Burnett in the interview.

Panetta said part of that scrutiny was to look at the final stage that launched the satellite into orbit "to determine whether or not that did work effectively or whether it tumbled into space."

The official cautioned that the North Koreans could resolve whatever technical issues they may be facing. While not necessarily fully handling the satellite, it is not thought to be spinning uncontrollably.

In a key indicator of a potential problem, there was no indication that North Korea's ground control had sent a crucial radio signal to the satellite, the official explained.

That type of signal is expected almost immediately as it is used to order the satellite to deploy solar panels that power its electronics.

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