Recent commercial satellite imagery shows a range of low-level activities at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station (also referred to as “Tongchang-ri”)—at the launch pad, covered railway station, VIP housing area, launch control bunker and National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA) buildings and helipad—that indicate Pyongyang is in the early stages of preparation for launching a space launch vehicle (SLV). If that is the case, a rocket test in the coming week is unlikely.
However, it is important to note that there is a high level of uncertainty about this judgment for a number of reasons and Pyongyang may be further along in its preparations. First, the gantry tower work platforms are covered by an environmental cover and are folded forward, obscuring any view of whether a SLV is inside or not. Second, the movable transfer structure could easily allow for stages to be assembled and transferred to the gantry tower during periods of darkness or heavy cloud cover. Moreover, since the entire launch pad area is now clear of snow, any movement by the structure cannot be determined. Third, commercial satellite imagery coverage of the test site is not continuous and therefore observers only have snapshots of activity at the launch pad.
If North Korea follows previous pre-launch preparation practices, we would expect to see in the coming days increased site-wide activity, traffic at the fuel/oxidizer storage bunkers, activity at the launch pad and the presence of tracking equipment.
Activity at Sohae also suggests a possible rocket engine test is under preparation at the vertical engine test stand. A recently completed large rail-mounted environmental structure large enough to shelter the first stage of rockets, such as the Unha space launch vehicle or the Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile or a new engine of similar size, has been moved up to the test stand. While this may simply be testing the ability of the shelter to move it on the rails, a more likely alternative is that an engine test is being prepared.
Figure 1. Overview of Sohae Satellite Launching Station.
Recent commercial satellite imagery indicates a low level of activity at the Sohae launch pad including:
A January 25, 2016 image shows three objects at the base of the gantry tower that are either vehicles or equipment. Personnel are visible on the launch pad tarmac.
A January 18, 2016 image captured a single truck at the preparation building on the pad. The truck left a set of tracks that can be traced back to the covered rail station, indicating that it was delivering cargo or personnel to the launch pad.
The newly erected fuel/oxidizer storage bunkers appear to have been externally completed by December 28, 2015. However, there may be continuing installation of tanks and related pumping equipment internally.
The snow that covered most of the launch pad area in the December 28 image has been cleared during last four weeks through a combination of manual clearing and snow melt. This includes the access road to the fuel/oxidizer bunkers.
Covered Rail Station
Imagery from January 11 and 18 of the covered rail station shows tire tracks in the snow from vehicles moving to and from the station suggesting that material or personnel had been delivered to the site. Some of these tracks show movement between the rail station and the launch pad. Since the roads throughout most of the facility are clear in the January 25 image it is not possible to determine if this activity has continued.
VIP Housing Area and Possible Payload Processing Building
In both the December 28 and January 25 images the roads and parking areas at the VIP housing area and adjacent satellite control building are clear of snow. In addition, several vehicles are present in the housing parking areas in the more recent image. In the past, this has generally only occurred when an engine test or rocket launch were being prepared.
A nearby building—used in the past for satellite control but now possibly being used for payload processing—is in active use. A new parking area has been built here during the past four months and the area paved.
Launch Control Bunker, NADA Facilities and Helipad
While a cleared footpath at the launch control bunker was seen in the December 28 image, by January 25 traffic in this location, including vehicles, appears to have increased. At the large NADA auditorium, support building and helicopter pad in the northwest corner of the facility, the helicopter pad, typically snow covered as in the December 28 image, is being cleared on January 25. At the smaller support building, the parking area that was partially cleared in the earlier image is now completely cleared of snow. The roads to all three facilities are also clear of snow. While the purpose of these buildings is unclear, all of these activities indicate that they are in use or are being prepared for use.
Possible Engine Test at Vertical Engine Test Stand
Activity suggests a possible rocket engine test is under preparation at the vertical engine test stand. In the December 28 image, the construction of a large rail-mounted environmental shelter at stand was progressing. As of January 25, it appears complete and has been moved up to the engine test stand. The size of this structure is large, measuring approximately 11-meters-wide, 29-meters-long and 11-meters-high—large enough to house in a concealed manner the first stage of a rocket such as the Musudan intermediate range ballistic missile, the Unha space launch vehicle or a new engine of similar size. While this may simply be testing the ability of the shelter to move it on the rails, a more likely alternative is that an engine test is being prepared.
The level of activity throughout the Sohae facility at the launch pad, covered rail station, VIP housing area, launch control bunker and NADA facilities (particularly the helipad) raise justifiable concerns that North Korea may be preparing for the launch of a space launch vehicle. Moreover, the level of activity throughout the site is unlikely to be justified by what appears to be an imminent rocket engine test. If Pyongyang is preparing for a rocket launch, available imagery indicates that a launch is not imminent and that the North may be at an early stage of preparation.
However, there is a high level of uncertainty about this judgment for a number of reasons. First, the gantry tower work platforms are covered by an environmental cover and are folded forward, obscuring any view of whether a rocket is inside or not. Second, the movable transfer structure could easily allow for stages to be assembled and transferred to the gantry tower during periods of darkness or heavy cloud cover. In the earlier image the structure did not appear to have moved since the snowfall observed in a December 4 image as its tracks remained snow covered. Since the entire launch pad area is now clear of snow, any movement by the structure cannot be determined. Third, commercial satellite imagery coverage of the test site is not continuous and therefore observers only have snapshots of activity at the launch pad.
If North Korea follows previous pre-launch preparation practices, we would expect to see in the coming days increased site-wide activity, traffic at the fuel/oxidizer storage bunkers, activity at the launch pad and the presence of tracking equipment.
North Korea preparing for a new rocket launch?
38 North, a website dedicated to North Korean affairs, stated that there was “a high level of uncertainty” about reports indicating that North Korea is preparing to launch a long-range missile from its Sohae launch site in Dongchang Village, North Pyongan Province. The above photo of Sohae, taken Jan. 25, reveals snow removal near a launch pad, people, and vehicles and equipment, which were not apparent in previous photos, but the website cautioned that this type of movement does not necessarily indicate that a launch is imminent. (Reuters, Yonhap News)
Indications are that the North is getting ready to conduct a long-range rocket launch, but that it’s most likely for a satellite or space vehicle
With multiple sightings of North Korean preparations to launch a long-range rocket, reports indicate that the projectile is more likely to be a space vehicle carrying a satellite than it is to be a ballistic missile.
"The indications are that [North Korea is] preparing for some kind of launch," an official with the US Department of Defense told the AFP wire service on Jan. 28. "Could be for a satellite or a space vehicle - there are a lot of guesses.”
The official added that there were no signs that the preparations were related to a ballistic missile launch.
Noting that a rocket launch appeared to be imminent, another US official said, “Our concern is that when they do a space launch, it happens to be the same components that can be used in an ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile].”
UN Security Council resolutions forbid North Korea from testing not only ballistic missile technology but also any kind of launch vehicles that might have applications for such technology.
The Reuters wire service also reported on Friday that North Korea could launch a rocket into space in the near future from its Sohae launch site in Dongchang Village, North Pyongan Province, quoting several American officials.
"We are keeping a close eye on these activities by the North Koreans. We're watching 24/7," Reuters quoted an American official as saying.
Citing a US government official, Japan’s NHK news reported that the US had detected “increased activity” around North Korea’s launch facility at Dongchang Village and that this activity suggested that the North could conduct a launch “within a couple of weeks.”
On Jan. 29, Tokyo issued orders to the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to intercept and destroy any North Korean projectile that enters Japanese airspace. The orders suggest that Japanese Aegis cruisers – which are capable of intercepting ballistic missiles – will be dispatched to the East Sea and the East China Sea for surveillance purposes.
“If Pyongyang is preparing for a rocket launch, available imagery indicates that a launch is not imminent and that the North may be at an early stage of preparation,” said 38 North, a website dedicated to North Korean affairs, based on its analysis of commercial satellite imagery. The website also noted that “there is a high level of uncertainty about this judgment for a number of reasons.”
One of these reasons, the website explained, is that the gantry towers at the launch pad that would be used for important work are all covered up. Another is that the various stages of the rocket could easily be moved to the launch site and assembled at night or on cloudy days.
“We have not concluded that North Korea will be launching a long-range missile within the next week. However, we are watching the situation closely because of the possibility of a sudden launch,” a senior South Korean military official said on Jan. 29.
This official also dismissed media reports claiming that there were indications that a cargo train – presumably carrying a long-range missile – had departed from a weapons laboratory in Pyongyang bound for the launch facility in Dongchang Village. “They are not true,” the official said.
By Yi Yong-in, Washington correspondent, and Gil Yun-hyung, Tokyo correspondent
Quelle: The Hankyoreh
North Korea moves forward start of rocket launch period to Sunday
TOKYO (Kyodo) -- The Japanese government said Saturday that North Korea has brought forward the start of the period during which it plans to launch a rocket by one day to Sunday.
Pyongyang has notified the International Maritime Organization of the rescheduling, according to the government.
Pyongyang now plans the rocket launch, widely believed to be a de facto test-firing of a long-range ballistic missile, between Sunday and Feb. 14.
The new schedule is earlier and shorter than its previous plan of sometime between Monday and Feb. 25.
Last Tuesday, North Korea notified U.N. agencies including the IMO it planned to launch an earth observation satellite, with the daily launch window set between 7 a.m. and noon Pyongyang time.
According to the previous notification, North Korea expects the first stage of the rocket to fall into the Yellow Sea off the western coast of South Korea and west of the South Korean southern island of Jeju.
The Japanese government said there is no change to the daily launch window or areas expected to be affected by the launch.
Despite the change of plan, "we will take appropriate measures to secure the safety of the people under any circumstance," Defense Minister Gen Nakatani told reporters.
He also said that the ministry aims to complete by Sunday morning the deployment of Maritime Self-Defense Force Aegis destroyers equipped with antiballistic missiles and ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptors.
A high-ranking defense ministry official said North Korea probably decided to bring forward the schedule based on its analysis of weather conditions.
Quelle: Asian Review
North Korea launches ‘satellite,’ sparks fears about long-range missile program
TOKYO — North Korea on Sunday declared that it had successfully put an “earth observation satellite” into orbit under the direct orders of leader Kim Jong Un, and said it planned to launch “many more.”
Both the South Korean defense ministry and the Pentagon said that the rocket, launched at 9 a.m. North Korean time from a launch pad near the Chinese border, appeared to have successfully reached space.
The United States, Japan and South Korea immediately condemned the launch, a move widely seen as another step toward North Korea mastering the technology for making a missile capable of striking the mainland United States. The U.N. Security Council called an emergency meeting for later Sunday to discuss how to respond to the country’s latest provocation.
But North Korea gloated about its most recent advance into space. It said it that it had fired a Kwangmyongsong-4 (the name translates as “lode star”), a newer-model satellite than the one launched three years ago and one that it said was equipped with devices for Earth measurement and communication.
“Today’s success is a proud result of scientific achievement and an exercise of our legitimate right to space,” Ri Chun Hee, North Korea's most famous newsreader, who was brought out of retirement to announce last month’s nuclear test, declared in a special broadcast from Pyongyang following the launch.
“The success of Kwangmyongsong-4 launch is a groundbreaking event. The National Aerospace Development Administration plans to launch many more satellites following our national policy of focusing on the importance of science and technology,” she said.
Kim, the 33-year-old third-generation leader of North Korea, personally signed the order to launch on Saturday, Ri said. The satellite entered orbit after nine minutes and 46 seconds, she said in the broadcast on Korean Central Television.
The launch took place half an hour before the Republican presidential debate started, and candidates Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) both urged China to get tough.
Quelle: The Washington Post
North Korea launches long-range rocket
North Korea reportedly launched a long-range rocket that many believe is an illegal test of a ballistic missile on Saturday.
The U.S. military said shortly after that it detected a missile launch.
"U.S. Strategic Command systems detected and tracked what we assess was a North Korean missile launch into space at 6:29 p.m. CST," it said in a statement. "The missile was tracked on a southerly launch over the Yellow Sea."
Strategic Command said there was no direct threat to North America and that the military would "remain vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations and are fully committed to working closely with our Republic of Korea and Japanese allies to maintain security."
North Korea, though, is claiming it only launched a satellite.
Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement condemning the launch as a "flagrant violation of UN Security Council Resolutions related to the D.P.R.K. [North Korea's] use of ballistic missile technology."
"This is the second time in just over a month that the D.P.R.K. has chosen to conduct a major provocation, threatening not only the security of the Korean peninsula, but that of the region and the United States as well," he said.
"We reaffirm our ironclad commitment to the defense of our allies, including the Republic of Korea and Japan."
National Security Adviser Susan Rice also condemned the launch and vowed the U.S. would "take all necessary steps" to respond.
"We condemn today's launch and North Korea's determination to prioritize its missile and nuclear weapons programs over the well-being of its people, whose struggles only intensify with North Korea’s diversion of scarce resources to such destabilizing activities," she said in a statement.
The launch is the latest provocative move from Pyongyang. It comes a month after North Korea also claimed to have successfully tested a hydrogen bomb.
The rocket launch and bomb test are both illegal under United Nations restrictions.
The move also comes days before the Senate is poised to vote on tougher sanctions on North Korea in response to the bomb test and the hack on Sony Pictures.
North Korea Launches Rocket Seen as Cover for a Missile Test
SEOUL, South Korea — Defying warnings of tougher sanctions from Washington, North Korea launched a rocket on Sunday that Western experts believe is part of a program to develop intercontinental ballistic missile technologies.
The rocket blasted off from Tongchang-ri, the North’s main satellite launch site near its northwestern border with China, a spokesman for the South Korean Defense Ministry said.
President Park Geun-hye of South Korea called an emergency meeting of top national security advisers on Sunday to address the launch, her office said. South Korea, the United States and Japan also requested an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry called the launch a “major provocation, threatening not only the security of the Korean Peninsula, but that of the region and the United States as well.” Susan E. Rice, the national security adviser, said it was “a flagrant violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions.”
North Korea earlier notified the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations agency overseeing navigation safety, that it planned to launch a rocket between Sunday and Feb. 14 to put a satellite into orbit. After the launch on Sunday, North Korea said that it had succeeded in doing so, and South Korea acknowledged that it appeared to be the case.
The United States and allied nations had condemned North Korea’s plan because they consider its satellite program to be a sort of cover for developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear bomb. Under a series of Security Council resolutions, North Korea is prohibited from developing nuclear weapons or ballistic-missile technologies.
Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, whose family has ruled the country for seven decades, wanted to show off advances in his missile and nuclear programs just before the Feb. 16 birthday of his father, Kim Jong-il, who died in 2011. Pyongyang has timed some of its earlier nuclear and rocket tests to major national anniversaries.
North Korea insists its space program is peaceful, intended to put scientific satellites into orbit. It has attempted several launches since 1998, finally succeeding in putting a small satellite into space in 2012.
Activity at North Korea Site Suggests Preparations for Rocket LaunchFEB. 4, 2016
But the United States and its allies consider the program a pretext for developing technologies that can also be used to build an intercontinental ballistic missile. The North’s launch of a three-stage rocket on Sunday, after a similar test in 2012, showed that the country was determined to acquire them despite sanctions imposed by the Security Council.
With the launch, North Korea was also defying China, which had issued strong appeals not to proceed. In flouting China, the North’s only treaty ally, Mr. Kim was showing the ultimate disrespect to the government that has continued to trade with him, including sending oil that keeps the military and the rudimentary economy working.
Continue reading the main story
Continue reading the main story
A senior Chinese diplomat, Wu Dawei, traveled to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, early last week with the specific message that the launch should not go ahead. Chinese analysts conceded that Mr. Wu had an impossible assignment, and he returned to Beijing on Thursday night unsuccessful.
Mr. Kim appears confident that he can continue to show contempt for his ally, believing, it seems, that China fears his ability to turn on it. Beijing has resisted Washington’s effort to place tough sanctions on the North since a nuclear test last month, concerned that the move might destabilize its neighbor.
In a statement released on Sunday after Japan, South Korea and the United States pressed for firmer action, China called for calm and said the major powers should “act cautiously.”
The Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said, “China expresses regret over the launch with ballistic missile technology carried out by North Korea despite wide opposition from the international community.”
Dialogue was the best solution, the statement said, echoing a long-held position by Beijing that talks with North Korea that include the United States and China should be resumed.
South Korea said the launch on Sunday showed that efforts to end the North’s nuclear and missile programs through dialogue no longer worked.
“They just gave North Korea time to advance its nuclear capabilities,” Cho Tae-yong, first deputy director of national security of the South Korean presidential office, said in a statement.
Mr. Cho said “the only way to make North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons development” was through “effective and strong sanctions.”
“We will continue to apply pressure so North Korea has no option but to change,” he said.
The North’s latest move is sure to add impetus to the United States’ call for tougher sanctions and for a more vigorous missile defense for its allies in the region.
Hours after the North declared the success of its launch on Sunday, the United States and South Korea jointly announced that they had begun discussing deployment of the American Thaad ballistic missile defense system. China, the South’s largest trade partner, has warned it would consider the system’s presence in the South a threat to its security.
Washington and its regional allies, South Korea and Japan, deployed Aegis destroyers and PAC-3 missile interceptors in case debris from the rocket hurtled toward them. North Korea is widely believed to have at least several nuclear weapons. Although North Korea can learn much about the technology to build ballistic missiles from satellite launches, putting a satellite into orbit does not guarantee an ability to deliver a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile.
North Korea has never tested a ballistic-missile version of its Unha-series rockets. After four nuclear tests by the North, Western analysts were still unsure whether the country had mastered the technology to build a warhead small enough to mount on a long-range missile.
They were also debating how close the country had come to acquiring the ability to build a warhead that could survive the intense heat while re-entering the atmosphere, as well as a guidance system capable of delivering a warhead close to a target.
The Unha-3 rocket, if modified to carry a 2,200-pound warhead instead of a satellite, could have enough range to reach Alaska and possibly Hawaii, David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in his blog on Friday.
Quelle: The New York Times
N. Korea launches long-range rocket
SEOUL, -- North Korea launched a long-range rocket from its northwest Dongchang-ri launch site on Sunday in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions.
The communist country has said the launch will put an earth observation satellite into orbit, but the outside world views it as cover for testing an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The North has warned that the rocket's first stage is expected to fall in the West Sea, the fairing in the East China Sea and the second stage in the Philippine Sea.
Initially, the North proclaimed the rocket would be fired sometime between Feb. 8 and 25, but it advanced the launch window to Feb. 7-14 on Saturday.
It is the sixth long-range missile test by the North in its program to develop nuclear-loaded intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The missile fired on Sunday is believed to have a range of more than 10,000 kilometers, which could reach the mainland U.S.
North Korean satellite is in orbit, says South
A satellite sent into space by North Korea is in orbit but it is not yet clear whether it is working, South Korea's defence ministry has said.
The North has said the Kwangmyongsong-4 is a communications satellite and that Sunday's launch was a complete success.
But the move was internationally condemned as North Korea is banned under UN sanctions from using any ballistic missile technology.
The UN has vowed to impose further sanctions as punishment.
The US said on Monday that this could include "a range of economic sanctions that would further isolate North Korea" and send a clear signal "that the resolve of the international community here is firm".
The US has also said it will help South Korea deploy an advanced missile defence system as soon as possible, officials from the Pentagon have said.
The South's defence ministry said the launch indicated the North now has long-range missiles with a 12,000km (7,500-mile) range, the Yonhap news agency reports.
But it remains unclear whether it has developed the technology to make a missile re-enter the atmosphere, critical if it is to use the missile as as weapon.
The North insists its space programme is purely scientific in nature but the US, South Korea and even Pyongyang's ally China say the rocket launches are aimed at developing inter-continental ballistic missiles.
Last month North Korea also carried out its fourth test of a nuclear bomb.
February 2016: Launch of rocket reportedly carrying satellite
May 2015: North Korea announces it has successfully tested a submarine-launched missile for the first time, but scepticism is then poured on the claim
Dec 2012: North Korea launches three-stage rocket, says it successfully put a satellite into orbit; US defence officials confirm object in orbit
Apr 2012: Three-stage rocket explodes just after take-off, falls into sea
Apr 2009: Three-stage rocket launched; North Korea says it was a success, US says it failed and fell into the sea
Jul 2006: North Korea test-fires a long-range Taepodong-2 missile; US said it failed shortly after take-off
North Korea’s Space Launch: An Initial Assessment
At first glance, North Korea’s launch of an Unha Space Launch Vehicle (SLV) on February 7, 2016, looks very much like a repeat of its successful launch a little over three years ago. In fact, a close examination reveals that the North appears to have used some stock footage of the 2012 launch in its announcement this time around. But there are also images of a rocket launching from the new gantry that North Korea completed only last year. Moreover, the US Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) has released the orbital elements of two new bodies in stable orbits, with the identifiers “KMS-4” for the Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite and “Unha 3 R/B” for the launch vehicle’s upper stage rocket body. In short, this is not a hoax.
Images of the rocket departing the launch pad indicate an overall length of about 30 meters, the same as the Unha-3 rocket from North Korea’s 2012 launch. To the extent that we can tell from low-resolution images, the shape and the engine exhaust plumes are also nearly identical. North Korea did politely tell the mariners and airmen of the world where to expect the expended rocket stages to fall, and these also match the 2012 launch. The satellite itself is in a very similar orbit to 2012. While many had expected North Korea to debut a new and larger rocket, and the new launch pad was clearly built for a larger rocket, that launch is still in the future. North Korea might call this new rocket an Unha-4, but it is almost certainly an Unha-3 with, at most, minor modifications.
Several early reports indicated that the launch had failed, some saying that the first stage was seen on radar to have exploded; others that the rocket disappeared from radar shortly after the payload shroud had separated. These are common times for failure, and yet the satellite is in orbit. Most likely the rocket disappeared from radar at about the time it was passing out of range, with perhaps a moment of confusion while radar tried to track the payload shroud rather than the rocket.
But it does seem likely that the first stage did explode—after safely separating from the rocket. That’s a change from the 2012 launch, where the first stage fell into the ocean relatively intact and was recovered by the South Korean Navy. This could have been a late malfunction or a reaction involving unburnt residual propellant, but it could also be that the North Koreans didn’t want their southern neighbors to get quite so good a look at their rocket this time. Self-destruct mechanisms are frequently added to stages for “range safety,” to make sure no wayward rocket can land on a populated area, and it would be little trouble to deliberately activate one as soon as the first stage has done its job. Whatever minor modifications the DPRK may have made to the first stage will likely remain obscure.
Assume for the moment that North Korea is sincere in its claim that it just want to launch satellites. They are calling this one the “Kwangmyongsong-4,” and saying it is an Earth observation satellite. This is plausible enough, though “Earth observation” covers everything from improving weather forecasts and crop yields to military reconnaissance and targeting. North Korea’s first satellite accomplished little, tumbling out of control shortly after launch. At this point, North Korea would probably consider it a win if its satellite could hold a stable attitude, communicate with the ground and send back a few pictures.
North Korea claims the satellite was launched into an orbit that ranges from 494.6 to 500 kilometers above the earth, inclined at 97.4 degrees from the equator. JSpOC’s data indicates 466 to 501 kilometers and a 97.5 degree inclination. If we trust JSpOC more than we do North Korean newscasters, it looks like they missed their target by a little bit. The orbit they were aiming for was something called a “sun-synchronous orbit,” which is particularly suitable for Earth observation satellites as it passes over targets at exactly the same local time every day. This one will drift, but should still be serviceable.
The Unha-3 rocket can probably carry at least 200 kilograms of payload to such an orbit, though its last satellite was reportedly only half that weight. Until the North has mastered the basics of satellite technology, there is little reason for it to try anything bigger or more ambitious at the moment; and little reason to use a bigger rocket that it may be developing either. The Unha-3 worked just fine three years ago; it’s the satellites that need work. Presumably when they are confident with basic technology-demonstration satellites they will move on to bigger rockets with more capable payloads.
But the obvious concern is that North Korea is testing ballistic missiles and only pretending to care about satellites. The Unha-3 or Unha-4 could certainly be used as an ICBM. The upper stages generate only about half the thrust we would expect if it were built for that purpose, but it could probably still carry a payload of almost 1000 kilograms to a range of 10,000 kilometers. And with two successful tests under its belt, it could probably do so reliably.
What it can’t do, quite yet, is hit anything of value. North Korea can probably build a nuclear warhead light enough for the Unha to carry, and they may well have tested one. What it has not done is tested a reentry vehicle that would survive hitting the atmosphere at roughly 16,000 miles per hour. That’s not an insurmountable technical challenge, and we expect North Korea will succeed when it gets around to it, but the North will want to test its technology at least once. Of equal importance, the North still needs to work on the rocket guidance system. If this launch had been aimed at a point 10,000 kilometers distant on Earth, rather than the perfect sun-synchronous orbit we assume was the target, it would have fallen almost 50 kilometers short and 10 kilometers west of its aimpoint. That’s an improvement over last time, but still a ways to go.
And really, even if North Korea can turn the Unha-3 into a rocket that delivers 1,000 kilogram warheads with perfect reliability and pinpoint accuracy, there is still the fundamental problem that it weighs almost 100 tons, can only be launched from fixed sites and requires so much preparation that we can see it being readied days before launch. That doesn’t make for a useful weapon. What North Korea almost certainly wants for a weapon is a much smaller, road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). They are working on one of those, but we don’t expect it to be operational until sometime after 2020.
For now, North Korea is making small steps towards improving its rocket and satellite capabilities. What it will do with the satellites, we are not yet sure. That path may involve larger and more powerful rockets in the future. A real ICBM capability comes from following a different path, longer and less certain, and one where modest improvements in the Unha series of SLVs are of little relevance. Even if North Korea does try to adapt the Unha to serve as an interim ICBM, it will probably need one or two more tests—and the construction of hardened silos to replace the current open launch site.
If the rocket is nothing new, the most important thing to look for in coming weeks is any indication that the satellite is doing something more than tumbling out of control. Even amateur astronomers will likely be able to tell that much from the flickering of reflected sunlight. If it can maintain a stable orientation, that will be an important step forward for North Korea. If it can perform any sort of maneuver using an onboard propulsion system that would be a bigger step forward, and one we would likely know about when JSpOC issues new orbit calculations. Radio signals from the satellite would mark critical progress for North Korea in another area, particularly if they occur over a prolonged period and show signs of two-way communication. Finally, if it is an Earth observation satellite, they may release images to the press to brag about how well it is working—but we will have to be careful not to be fooled if they release copies of someone else’s satellite images.
To address the concern that this might be a missile in disguise, we’ll have to look closer to Earth. First, if the North Koreans are planning to deploy a weaponized Unha, they’ll need to test it at least once more to improve the accuracy, and they’ll almost certainly want to test a reentry vehicle at the same time—there’s no point in getting the launch perfect if the warhead is going to veer off course on reentry. They will also want to practice their launch preparation procedures. They were able to ready this rocket for launch significantly faster than they did in 2012, with the final, highly visible preparations taking only a few days instead of weeks; but for a weapon, they would want to bring that down to hours instead of days. If we see them repeatedly setting up and taking down rockets on the pad, that would be a dangerous sign. But even hours of preparation would probably be too long in wartime, and the North Koreans would want to hedge their bets by building hardened silos. The North Koreans are good at camouflage, but the Unha may be too big a rocket even for them to hide. Should anyone find silos set up to hold Unha-sized rockets, any pretense that this is just a satellite program would vanish and we would know that North Korea is deploying ICBMs. So far, we haven’t seen any sign of that.
Quelle: 38 North