Tuesday 27 February 2024

A perigee-raising manoeuvre by the North Korean satellite Malligyong-1

Kim Jong Un inspecting a Malligyong satellite under construction in 2023. image: KCNA

On 21 November 2023 (see this earlier blogpost), after two failed earlier attempts, North Korea launched its first military reconnaissance satellite, Malligyong-1 (2023-179A), using its new Chollima-1 rocket. 

Like two civilian predecessors (KMS 3-2 in 2012 and KMS-4 in 2016), it did indeed reach orbit - an initialy 512 x 493 km, 97.43 degree inclined Sun-Synchonous orbit. But: although North Korea in the days and weeks after launch claimed the satellite took images of various US and South Korean Naval bases and  other important locations (such as the White House), it was not clear whether the satellite was really functional

North Korea never made any purported imagery taken by the satellite public, and independent radio trackers never detected any signals from the satellite.

But now we can definitely say the satellite is alive, On February 19, 2024, it initiated the first of a number of successive perigee raising manoeuvers that stepwise brought perigee (the lowest point in its orbit) up from 488 km to 497 km. It can be seen as the stepped "jump" in the red line in the diagram below, which maps the evolution of the apogee and perigee height of the orbit since launch:

click diagram to enlarge


The orbit raise appears to have been performed stepwise, in five increments, starting on February 19/20 and completed by February 24. The net effect was not only a perigee raise, but also a more circular orbit (currently 508 x 497 km).

click diagram to enlarge


The manoeuvre proves that Malligyong-1 is not dead, and that North-Korea has control over the satellite - something that was disputed.

South Korea's Defense Minister Shin Won-sik, commenting on the North Korean satellite, just this week remarked that it: "is currently in orbit. But it is not showing any signs of performing tasks or engaging in reconnaissance activities". Thus suggesting the satellite is not working.

That remark didn't age well: while we indeed currently can not be sure whether the satellite does successfully take imagery, it at least performs orbital manoeuvres, so in that sense it is functional. And to do such manoeuvers, you need to have the satellite under control, including attitude control.

The orbit raising manoeuver comes a bit as a surprise, as the presence of an onboard propulsion system is unexpected. The previous two North Korean satellites never manoeuvered. That Malligyong-1 has means of propulsion, was not something I and many other analysts expected.

Having the capacity to raise the satellite's orbit is a big deal. It means that North Korea, as long as there is fuel left in the satellite, can prolong the satellite's orbital lifetime, by raising its orbit when it gets too low due to natural orbital decay: thus delaying reentry into the atmosphere.

The orbit raise comes at a moment that some western observers expect that North Korea will launch another satellite soon.

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