Jason DavisDec 12, 2012

North Korea launches first satellite

Like it or not, North Korea is now a spacefaring nation.

The insular Democratic People's Republic of Korea launched a satellite from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station at 9:49 a.m. local time Wednesday (7:49 p.m. EST Tuesday, 0049 UTC Wednesday). Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3, which means "shining star," reached orbit shortly thereafter, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency

The launch of Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3
The launch of Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Four images of the launch of Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3, or Shining Star-3, posted by the Korean Central News Agency.Image: Korean Central News Agency

NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense command, detected and tracked the south-bound launch. The Unha-3 carrier rocket's first stage fell into the Yellow Sea, and the second tumbled into the Philippine Sea. Several reports also indicate the third stage and payload attachment unit were being tracked, indicating the satellite separated successfully upon reaching orbit.

North Korea says Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 is an Earth-observing satellite, but its exact capabilities are unclear. Its orbit was reported to have a perigee of 499.7 kilometers and an apogee of 584.18 kilometers, with an inclination of 97.4° and an orbital period of 95 minutes. Heavens Above shows very similar numbers. This is a bit more elliptical and lower than some of NASA's polar-orbiting, sun-synchronous Earth-observing satellites. Suomi NPP, for instance, has a fairly-circular 824-kilometer orbit, an inclination of 98.7° and an orbital period of 101 minutes.

An April 2012 attempt to launch the Unha and Kwangmyŏngsŏng failed, with the rocket exploding during the first stage of flight. While North Korea is ecstatic over their satellite's success, the White House and the United Nations are not amused. The White House said the launch was "yet another example of North Korea’s pattern of irresponsible behavior."

"Devoting scarce resources to the development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons has not brought it security and acceptance by the international community—and never will," says a statement from the office of Press Secretary Jay Carney. Similarly, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon "deplores the rocket launch," saying "it is all the more regrettable because it defies the unified and strong call from the international community."

Sohae Satellite Launching Station
Sohae Satellite Launching Station The location of North Korea's Sohae Satellite Launching Station.Image: Google Earth

The sticking point is U.N. Security Council resolution 1874, which demands that North Korea not conduct rocket launches using ballistic missile technology. Is the Unha-3 a ballistic missile? Arguably, yes. Confirmed technical details on the rocket are scarce, but it is believed to be based on the Taepodong-2 series rocket. Both launch vehicles are rumored to contain a hodgepodge of Soviet, Chinese and Iranian technology.

The Unha's success shows North Korea may be capable of hitting a neighboring country. But reaching a distant target like the U.S. would require re-entry technology, and there's no indication that the North Koreans have that capability. Additionally, the New York Times reports Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 weighs about 220 pounds, far less than the heft of a nuclear warhead. 

So, was Wednesday's launch a scientific triumph, or a thinly-veiled missile test? Only North Korea knows for sure.

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