Exclusive: Launch unlikely until December 21; weather challenges ahead
A NorthKoreaTech/38 North exclusive, with contributions by Nick Hansen and Michelle Kae
New GeoEye satellite imagery from December 10 shows activity at North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launching Station (Tongchang-ri) related to the removal of the Unha rocket from the launch pad, a process that is probably still underway and will not be completed before December 12-13 at the earliest. (NorthKoreaTech/38 North believes South Korean press reports that the entire rocket had been removed to the assembly building for repairs as of December 11 were wrong.)
This conclusion is based on a number of considerations. First, imagery taken on December 8 and 10 shows no tracks in the snow on the road between the missile assembly building and the launch pad that would be used by trailers carrying the missile stages. Second, there is no evidence to suggest that the process of moving the stages from the pad to the building had begun before December 10 when the first signs appear, suggesting new activity. If that is the case, given past North Korean practice, the process of moving the stages to the assembly building likely cannot be completed before December 12-13.
A key question is how long it might take for the North Koreans to repair the rocket, move it back to the pad and conduct the test. That effort could take approximately 9-10 days based on what is known about the first stage rocket technology as well as past North Korean behavior. Given that timeline, a launch might take place as early as December 21-22, with added flexibility possible since Pyongyang has extended its launch window until December 29.
Weather will continue to be an important consideration. Long-range forecasts, while uncertain, indicate temperatures at the launch site — minus 10 degrees centigrade or below — beginning December 21 that could not only adversely affect the rocket itself, but also cause problems for fueling. (Neither the fuel storage buildings or fuel pipes at the Sohae facility appear to be heated.)
Rocket Removed from Pad?
Reports in the South Korean press on December 11 stating that North Korea had moved all three stages of the Unha rocket off the launch pad into a nearby assembly building are inaccurate. While fixing problems with the first stage control engine mechanism will likely require taking down the rocket and either repairing or replacing the first stage, our analysis indicates that process is moving at a slower pace than what has been reported. Prior to North Korea’s announcement of technical problems on the 10th, imagery from December 7 and 8 shows that the Unha rocket was likely stacked at the gantry although the covered work platforms make it impossible to say for sure. However, recent satellite imagery from December 10 shows new activity probably related to the removal of the rocket from the launch pad.
In the December 8 imagery, there was a low level of activity, perhaps indicating a lull before moving forward with final launch preparations. The crane on top of the gantry remained stationary in the same spot both days, only a few small vehicles are present and the North Koreans had begun to clear snow from the launch pad (See figure 1). The road to the assembly building was cleared only part of the way, indicating that they believed it would not be used for heavy vehicles.
Figure 1. Light activity at the Sohae launch pad on December 8.
On December 10, there is new activity probably related to the removal of the rocket from the pad (see figure 2). The crane has moved its position from previous photos and is now on a southern angle along the axis of the pad with work platforms still surrounding the rocket. This indicates that work has been ongoing or is about to begin. Also, small security vehicles are parked in the snow-covered area of the pad. Four of these vehicles had been seen at the pad previously for the stacking of the stages on December 4. Their presence may be related to the December 10 announcement that the launch had been postponed and in preparation for removing the stages.
Figure 2. Preparations to remove stages from the pad seem to be underway on December 10.
While work may be ongoing or about to begin on December 10, there are no signs that the trailers required to carry the rocket stages have transported them from the pad to the missile assembly building where repairs would be conducted (see figure 3). Imagery taken on December 8 and 10 show no tracks in the snow on the road between the assembly building and the launch pad that would be used by these trailers. Since imagery taken before the 10th suggested that the process of taking down the stages had not yet begun and moving the stages from the pad to the assembly building would take 2-3 days based on past North Korean practices, we believe that process will not be complete before December 12-13 at the earliest.
Figure 3. Trailers to transport the first and second stages are missing, likely inside the assembly building.
Other Preparations Complete
Pyongyang appears to have completed other preparations for a launch by December 8 according to the imagery. A new development is the presence of two temporary probable instrumentation buildings in the cleared area below the launch pad on the north side near the flame trench (see figure 4). These buildings could house optical instruments used to measure the performance of the first stage’s cluster of four engines that may have been one cause of the failed April launch.
Figure 4. New probable instrumentation buildings near launch pad.
As of December 8, the Sohae instrumentation site appeared fully operational with a tracking radar, two telemetry antennas and a probable optical instrument (see figure 5). The road to the site has been plowed and on the 8th, a bus was parked near the beginning of the road indicating technicians were on site.
Figure 5. Instrumentation site appears fully operational.
The observation building where cameras are mounted to watch the launch appears operational as well, with vehicle tracks on the road up to the site. The snow had melted partially on the roof of the building indicating it may be heated (see figure 6).
Figure 6. Observation building appears operational.
At the “VIP hotels,” the snow has been cleared in the parking areas and has melted off the roofs of both buildings, indicating they are heated (see figure 7). Also, the road to these hotels from the rocket assembly building has been cleared down to the concrete, strongly indicating that some VIPs or foreign guests are either already at Sohae or are expected to arrive.
Figure 7. VIP hotels seem to be heated, with access roads cleared.
While the dark paved area surrounding the launch control building has been cleared of snow and the gate is open as of December 8, the snow has not yet melted off the roof and no vehicles are present inside the fence line (see figure 8).
Figure 8. The control building gate has opened.
While we cannot be certain, one possibility is that low temperatures at the Sohae test site over the past week have caused the delay in Pyongyang’s planned long-range rocket launch. The problem with the first-stage control engine module cited by the North may have been the result of temperatures at minus 10 degrees centigrade or below that could adversely affect lubricants on the moving rocket components, the consistency of fuel mixtures, or cause the contraction of metals. This is especially the case if a rocket, such as this one, is not designed to compensate for these problems.
If the earliest possible date for the rocket to be fully removed from the pad is as we believe December 12-13, repairs or replacement and restacking the rocket on the pad will take at least a week. Pyongyang will then resume its launch preparations and that could still take another 2-3 days to finish, given past practice. Therefore, the Unha rocket may not be ready for launch again until December 21-22 at the earliest.
Weather conditions, particularly low temperatures, will continue to be a challenging factor in the run-up to the launch, although the North’s extension of the announced window will continue to give its technicians some flexibility. While forecasting weather over the next 15 days presents problems, it appears that temperatures at the launch site will be problematic beginning December 21. (See Table 1 for weather/temperature forecast.) In addition to adversely affecting rocket performance, low temperatures can also create problems in fueling the rocket, particularly since there is no evidence to suggest that the fuel storage building or pipes leading to the pad at Sohae are heated or that the pipes are insulated.
 A light snow fell in the early morning hours of December 3 and a heavier snowfall took place between the afternoons of December 4 and 6. No new snow fell between December 7 and 10.
|Print article||This entry was posted by Martyn Williams on December 12, 2012 at 06:50, and is filed under Analysis, Satellite images, Space. Follow any responses to this post through RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback from your own site.|
No comments yet.
about 5 months ago - 1 comment
The U.S. government says it doesn’t have a problem with North Korean satellites in space, just as long as they aren’t launched on North Korean rockets. That distinction could be important in coming months as North Korea moves towards attempting to put a second satellite into space. No related posts.
about 5 months ago - No comments
North Korea’s space agency told the Associated Press last week that it is planning to launch another satellite. The satellite will be the fifth it has attempted to put in orbit. The first three launches were unsuccessful but the fourth, in December 2012, successfully placed a satellite into space, although the satellite appears to have malfunctioned.…
about 6 months ago - 1 comment
North Korea has built a new satellite control center, according to state-run media reports on Sunday. Existence of the center was revealed with news that Kim Jong Un visited the site recently. The exact date of the visit or its location wasn’t disclosed. A little of the center could be seen in images carried by…
about 2 years ago - No comments
North Korea’s Minju Joson newspaper on Saturday criticized the recent launch of a new spy satellite by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, according to a report on the state-run Korea Central News Agency. The classified satellite, called NROL-65, was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on August 28 into an orbit that is used…
about 2 years ago - 3 comments
The DPRK has submitted registration papers for the recently launched Kwangmyongsong 3-2 satellite to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. The papers were dated January 24 but were only made available this week by the Vienna-based organization. They were submitted by the DPRK’s diplomatic mission in the city. They don’t provide any new…
about 2 years ago - 7 comments
North Korea’s Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite, launched on December 12 but apparently silent ever since, has been captured on video by a South African satellite watcher. [UPDATED: See below] Greg Roberts posted several video clips on YouTube that show reflections of light from the sides the satellite as it orbits the Earth. The clips are from December…
about 2 years ago - 25 comments
It’s been a few days since North Korea put a satellite into space — a massive technological step for the country and something widely condemned by other countries — but we’re still not much closer to knowing anything about what’s up in space. It only took a few hours for North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD),…
about 2 years ago - 4 comments
North Korea’s international radio broadcaster, the Voice of Korea, carried two items in English on Wednesday announcing the rocket launch. The first led the news bulletin and was just over two minutes long: The second, announced over a musical bed, was about 3 minutes long and came at the end of the hour-long broadcast: Both…
about 2 years ago - 2 comments
U.S. Space Command is tracking three objects in orbit that apparently came from today’s North Korean rocket launch. The primary object is thought to be the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite. It’s been given the satellite catalog number 39026 and the international designator 12-072A — both identifications that help keep sorted the catalogs of satellites and junk in…
about 2 years ago - 2 comments
The North American Aerospace Defense Command, better known as NORAD, says it tracked the North Korean rocket launch and that it appears to have placed an object in orbit. Here’s the statement, issued out of Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, NORAD said: North American Aerospace Defense Command officials acknowledged today that U.S. missile warning systems…