Posts tagged GeoEye
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.
The latest satellite imagery of North Korea’s Sohae-ri Launch Facility is in from GeoEye and adds weight to possibility that weather is causing problems at the launch pad.
The image, taken earlier Monday, shows a blanket of snow covering most of the launch facility. Visible in some areas are vehicle tire tracks, indicating some movement, but some of the tracks appear to have been covered with an additional layer of snow, indicating repeated snowfall.
Last week the DPRK said it planned to launch a rocket between December 10 and 22nd, and on Sunday said the launch window would be extended until December 29th.
No reason was given for the delay, but snowfall and cold weather is a distinct possibility. Cold weather brings the need for additional safety checks and allowances, even in experienced rocket launching countries. This is understood to be North Korea’s first attempt to launch in cold weather.
About half the launch pad has been cleared of snow, but a good deal of it remains covered. Some roads around the facility have also been cleared, but others remain covered in snow.
We are working on a full analysis of the image with partners at 38 North and will have that as soon as possible.
A joint NorthKoreaTech/38 North exclusive, with analysis by Nick Hansen.
North Korean preparations for a new rocket launch later this month appear to be proceeding more slowly than previously reported in the press according to analysis of commercial satellite imagery from December 4 and past DPRK test practices. Moreover, since this is Pyongyang’s first attempt to launch a long-range rocket in winter, weather may be a new factor that has already slowed the launch preparations.
Contrary to press reports that the three-stage Unha rocket had already been erected at the launch pad by December 5, the North may have had insufficient time to complete that task by then. Satellite imagery showed no activity at the launch pad on December 1. By December 4, work was underway hidden under a dark canvas, however, this was less than the four days Pyongyang needed to erect the Unha-3 rocket before last spring’s test.
Moreover, work at the site may have been temporarily halted by snowfall on December 3, further delaying completion of the task. Imagery from December 4 of trailers used to move the rocket stages from the assembly building to the pad shows no tracks in the snow around them or on the road from the assembly building to the pad. Tracks would have been present if the trailers had continued operations.
In any case, Pyongyang only has to complete stacking the rocket stages two to three days ahead of time if the April 2012 launch is any guide. This means the task could be completed as late as December 7-8 in order to stay on schedule for a possible test at the beginning of the announced closure period on December 10. The fact that the period for this launch is twelve days — over twice as long as the five days announced in April may indicate that the North is well aware of the potential pitfalls caused by bad weather and has built flexibility into the launch schedule.
Unlikely that Complete Rocket is at the Launch Pad
While South Korean press reports on December 5 quoted unnamed government officials as stating that the process of erecting the three-stage Unha rocket had been completed, we believe these reports are inaccurate based on satellite imagery and lessons from past North Korean rocket launches.
Imagery on December 1 showed no rocket in the gantry, but a GeoEye satellite image from December 4 showed that work platforms, enclosed by a dark canvas hiding what is inside, are now extended over the mobile launch platform. In addition, four small security vehicles, similar to those seen during the stacking of Unha-2 rocket stages prior to the April 2009 test launch are present at the rear of the pad (see figure 1). They are an indicator of movement of rocket stages and payloads to the gantry.
Figure 1. Increased activity at the Sohae launch pad.
Since it took four days to stack the Unha-3 rocket prior to the launch in April 2012, the North is unlikely to have been able to accomplish the same task — moving the stages from the assembly building where they are located to the pad and stacking them — in the more limited time between December 2 and 4.
Moreover, the North Koreans may have had even less time to accomplish this task because of a light snowfall on December 3. Trailers used to move the first and second rocket stages to the launch pad had previously been observed at the missile assembly building in late November, presumably while the stages were inside undergoing the check out process before being moved to the pad. In December 4 imagery, both trailers remain parked in the same area, although the second stage trailer has moved maybe 10-20 feet (see figure 2).
Figure 2. First and second stage trailers parked in the motor pool near the missile assembly building.
The December 4 imagery shows no tracks in the snow that fell from early in the morning of December 3 and ending that afternoon, indicating neither has left the area since then. Nor are there any tracks on the road leading from the assembly building area to the launch pad. There are two tracks entering the assembly building but these are from small vehicles, such as a car, and not the large eight wheel trailers used to transport stages (see figure 3).
Figure 3. Only limited tracks around the missile assembly building.
The absence of tracks indicates that if one or both the rocket stages were delivered to the pad it had to have been done after December 1 and before snowfall on December 3. If that conclusion is correct, the amount of time Pyongyang had to move the rocket to the launch pad shrinks even further and as a result, we believe it only had enough time to move the first stage to the launch pad.
Preparations at Instrumentation Site
Preparations at the instrumentation site — which provides radar tracking data and information on the performance of the rocket, and is the source of the command destruct signal should the rocket go off course — continue. In the December 4 imagery, a trailer-mounted radar is being established and the temporary shelter covering the telemetry equipment appears complete (see figure 4). Additional vehicles should arrive as the launch becomes imminent.
Figure 4. Build up at the instrumentation site.
Since this is not a permanent installation, but rather relies on mobile equipment, the engineers and technicians who are required to set up and operate the site must be transported to its location and then picked up later in the day. Figure 5 shows a bus parked at the base of the road leading to the site that is presumably being used to transport personnel.
Figure 5. Bus spotted near the instrumentation site.
The upcoming launch, probably driven by political considerations, is the first time Pyongyang has attempted to test a long-range rocket in winter. Hence, weather is now an important consideration that North Korean technicians have to consider in the run-up to the launch. Indeed, the light snowfall on December 3 may have already slowed those preparations.
The North Koreans appear to have taken this new factor into consideration. Even with a possible weather-related delay this week, the North Koreans still have sufficient time to complete preparations on schedule. Pyongyang’s announcement of a twelve-day launch window, over twice as long as the five-day window for the April 2012 test, may have been based on careful consideration of possible delays or technical problems due to winter weather.
It’s sadly not possible to get a live look at North Korea’s Sohae launch facility, but we do have the next best thing: a satellite image from earlier today.
The image was taken by a GeoEye satellite at 11:34am local time (0234 GMT) and shows dustings of snow across much of the launch facility. (As usual, click for a larger version of the image.)
Satellite images had previously shown increased activity at the site and suggested a launch was being planned, but it wasn’t until Saturday that North Korea made it official: the county will attempt to launch a Kwangmyongsong 3 satellite into orbit sometime between December 10th and 22nd.
Additional information, obtained from the International Maritime Organization and released by the DPRK aviation authority, has narrowed down the launch window to between 7am and noon local time each day.
It also shows the launch pad continues to be busy with activity ahead of the DPRK’s upcoming rocket launch.
The latest launch pad image (below) reveals some of the objects placed near the buildings in the lower portion of the picture, which were presumed to be fuel tanks, have either gone or been moved. There are four objects on the launch pad and more on the access road leading to it.
The snow also shows clearly a path that makes a ring around the pad.
In my last post with Sohae images, I reported on new buildings around the railway depot. The two buildings on the west side of the tracks are still there but a third object, which I speculated might be a monument of some type, has moved thus proving it’s not a monument. In all likelihood the object, which can now be seen in the upper portion of the platform or loading area, is probably a piece of machinery or a truck.
And here’s a final close-up of what is presumed to be a processing building. It’s just to the south of the railway depot and is probably where the rocket parts are taken once offloaded from trains. The latest image shows a clean tarmac area in front of the building but otherwise snow around the structure.
Each observation satellite passes over the same spot on Earth about once every three days, so I’ll hopefully have more to present before the planned launch.
The latest satellite imagery of North Korea’s Sohae Launch Facility shows what appears to be preparations for the planned mid-April launch of a Unha-3 rocket. The pictures, from GeoEye, show several vehicles in the launch pad area, apparently taking in part in work ahead of the launch. There has also been progress on several construction projects at the facility on North Korea’s western coast.
A previous satellite image of the launch pad, taken 10 days earlier, revealed no apparent activity at the launch pad but the latest image, below, shows several vehicles in the pad area. There also appears to be a vehicle parked next to one of the buildings situated to the south of the pad. These buildings are thought to be for fuel storage.
Other changes at the launch center are also apparent.
In previous images construction progress could be seen on a building near the main entrance. An image from February 27th showed the structure without a roof, while a picture from March 20th (taken through light cloud) showed the roof partially constructed. The roof has now been completed (click for larger view):
There’s also been an intriguing change to the area around a couple of the largest and most important buildings at the launch facility. We know they are important because they are the only ones with a second layer of security, in the form of a wall around them.
In previous pictures the areas appeared to be light in color, the same as the plain concrete that makes up the facility’s roads. Now they are black in color. Is this perhaps a sheet constructed to shield the area from such satellite images, something laid out over the concrete, or is it perhaps just wet? If you have any ideas, please add them in the comments.
The first is what’s believed to be the rocket assembly building:
And there is this building, purpose unknown:
Recent satellite images of the Sohae Launch Facility on the DPRK’s west coast are providing the best glimpse yet of the center where the DPRK intends to launch a rocket in early April. North Korea says it’s launching a satellite while the rest of the world consider it a cover for a long-range missile test.
Whatever the truth of the planned launch, here’s a look at some of the most interesting areas of the facility. All of the information is based on analysis of the most current satellite image from GeoEye, previous images through Google Earth, and through previously published pictures of other launch facilities.
Here’s a look at the entire facility :
And here’s those areas with a little more detail. Click on each image to get a larger view.
While there are likely several layered security zones as the facility approaches, this is the recognizable main security gate.
It’s situated about 2 kilometers from the main launch pad and has an area where visiting vehicles can park.
The most recent image appears to show several individuals walking across the paved area.
Just after the main security gate, as you drive in on the right-hand side, is what could be an office building. Perhaps for visitors and administration work that doesn’t require deeper access to the facility.
Roughly opposite is a collection of several buildings. These buildings do not appear on a 2009 satellite image of the area available through Google Earth and appear to still be under construction. The roof on the largest of the three buildings appears to be partially complete on the 20 March image, but was missing completely from a satellite picture (not shown) taken on 27 February.
A railway line to the facility is one of the larger projects recently completed. It terminates alongside a long paved area at which goods can be transferred on an off railway cars.
4. Rocket Assembly Building
Just to the south of the railway transfer area is a large complex that is believed to be the main rocket assembly factory. A similar structure can be seen at North Korea’s other launch facility at Tonghae.
They are easily the largest buildings at the facility and appear to be about 100 meters long. It is also one of the few areas of the facility that is surrounded by a wall or fence.
Directly across the facility’s main road from the rocket assembly building are three additional buildings. Two of these also appear to be surrounded by a fence.
Close to the eastern-most building is what appears to be a man-made pool of water. A similar pool can be found towards the main launch pad and two additional pools appear close to the railway to road transfer point. Does anyone have any idea what they are for?
The launch pad sits towards the western end of a large concrete area in which a pair of rails is laid. When a rocket is on the pad it would be sitting next to the tower on the north side. A blast deflector can be seen on the western side of the pad. This takes turns the exhaust gases from a rocket launch through 90 degrees and funnels them out horizontally on to the nearby hillside.
To the south of the launch pad are four additional buildings. What looks like a gantry connects two of the buildings to the launch pad, possibly carrying cables and pipes to the launch tower. These could be associated with rocket fueling and power supply.
Built on a hill overlooking the launch pad, this is the launch observation building and probable launch control room.
An unpaved road the building, which is about half a kilometer from the launch pad, snakes through the hillside before ending in a paved parking area.
It looks like it’s been built in the opposite direction that rockets would launch so as to minimize any impact on workers should a launch go wrong.
On the far western edge of the facility are a group of buildings that could be living quarters for the scientists and soldiers stationed at the site.
The grouping of buildings is at the end of a windy road a fair distance from the center of the site so is unlikely to be associated with any of the core operations of the facility.
Indeed, the buildings could be nothing to do with the launch center, and might be a farm.
Further down the road from the main launch pad and to the south of the facility is what at first glance appears to be a second launch pad.
It has a similar launch tower, blast deflector and two buildings that resemble those at the main launch pad, although it’s smaller in size and doesn’t have an rails for a movable launch platform.
Based on analysis by GlobalSecurity.org and satellite images of North Korea’s other launch pad, this appears to be an engine test pad.
If site 9 is indeed an engine test pad then site 10 could be a control room or observation room.
Built on the side of the hill overlooking the pad, just like the control room for the main pad, this building appears to be smaller and possibly still under construction.
The final set of buildings worth noting are those between what is assumed to be the launch control room and the launch pad.
The buildings could be offices or living quarters for the scientists and soldiers that work at the facility.
If you have any thoughts on what any of these buildings could be, please leave a comment below or send me an email.