Posts tagged Sohae Launch Facility

North Korea launches rocket


So much for delays, technical problems and bad weather. (And so much for satellite imagery analysis!) North Korea launched its rocket on Wednesday morning local time at a little before 10am in the morning, according to reports from regional governments.

The missile was launched from the Sohae-ri launch facility, according to an immediate report from the South Korean government.

The Japanese government said it flew over the Okinawan islands at around 10:01am and a rocket stage fell into the Pacific Ocean off the Philippines a few minutes later.

If right, it appears the rocket followed its planned flight path quite closely. The rocket’s second stage was due to splash down just east of the Philippines.

Here’s a timeline, according to the reports:

09:49 Launch from Sohae-ri launch facility
09:58 Part of rocket splashes down 200kms off the west coast of South Korea (this roughly matches the first-stage splashdown zone announced by North Korea)
09:59 Second part of rocket splashes down 300kms off the south west of South Korea (matching fairing splash down)
10:01 Overflies Okinawan islands
10:05 Part of rocket splashes down 300kms east of the Philippines (this roughly matches the announced second-stage splash-down area)

Here’s what North Korea originally said it planned. It matches pretty well with what’s been reported, which makes it much more of a success than the previous launch.


Launch Surprise

The launch came as a surprise to many — probably most — North Korea watchers.

The DPRK had originally said it planned to launch the rocket between December 10th and 22nd and then extended the launch window until December 29. The reason for the extension, announced just two days ago on December 10th, was a “technical deficiency in the first-stage control engine module.”

South Korean media had reported the rocket had been emptied of fuel and was being taken off the launch pad. In satellite image analysis published on this site and 38North just an hour before the launch, Nick Hansen said the rocket still appeared to be on the launch pad but that an immediate launch was unlikely.

North Korean Media Report Launch Success

North Korean state media reported the launch in an unscheduled news bulletin at 11:20am.

Japan Condemns Launch

Here are the details the Japanese government shared in a news conference:

At approximately 09:49 today, it appears that North Korea launched a missile, which it calls a “satellite”, as North Korea announced on the 1st of this month.

It is estimated that the missile, which North Korea calls a “satellite”, passed over Okinawa of Japan at approximately 10:01. Information we obtained has been immediately disseminated to our people, local public authorities and media organizations through Em-Net and J-Alert systems and other means. It is also estimated that the first rocket fell to approximately 200 kilometers west of the Korean Peninsula in the Yellow Sea, the second one to approximately 300 kilometers south-west in the East China sea and the third one to approximately 300 kilometers east of the Philippines in the Pacific Ocean. – Japanese Government spokesman

The Japanese government, predictably, wasn’t happy with the launch:

The Government has strongly urged North Korea to exercise restraint and refrain from conducting the launch in recognition that this launch would undermine the peace and stability of the region including Japan, and violate the relevant UN Security Council Resolutions as well as the Presidential Statement of the Security Council issued after the launch of a missile in April this year. Despite such efforts, it is extremely regrettable that North Korea forced to conduct the launch. The launch is intolerable to Japan, and the Government lodges a strong protest to North Korea. – Japanese Government spokesman

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.[1] 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.

121112 Figure1

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.

121112 Figure2

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.

121112 Figure3

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.

121112 Figure4

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.

121112 Figure5

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).

121112 Figure6

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.

121112 Figure7

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).

121112 Figure8

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.


[1] 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.


Just In: Monday Satellite Image of Sohae


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.


DPRK extends satellite launch window


North Korea has extended the launch window for its Unha rocket, a day after saying they were looking to “readjust the launch timing.”

The rocket was originally scheduled to launch sometime in a two week window from December 10 and 22nd. The DPRK’s Korean Committee for Space Technology now say the launch window will run an extra week until December 29.

The news was announced in a statement carried by KCNA:

As already reported, scientists and technicians of the DPRK are pushing forward the preparations for the launch of the second version of Kwangmyongsong-3, a scientific and technological satellite, at a final phase.

They, however, found technical deficiency in the first-stage control engine module of the rocket carrying the satellite and decided to extend the satellite launch period up to Dec. 29. – KCNA, December 10, 2012.

Some recent satellite images of the Sohae Launch Facility have shown snow fall, which could also account for the change.

Image analysis: DPRK rocket staging proceeding more slowly than reported


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.

Latest images: Snow comes to Sohae launch facility


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.

Exclusive: More on DPRK rocket trajectory and launch plans


We’ve got more details on North Korea’s plans to launch a rocket later in December, including the daily launch window and where parts of the rocket might drop to sea. [Updated: See below]

The details were included in a notification sent from the DPRK’s embassy in London to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which is based in the same city.

The notification, a copy of which was obtained by, says the rocket will launch sometime between 7am and noon local time (2200 to 0300 GMT) during the possible launch period, which is from December 10th to 22nd.

North Korea’s previous rocket launch, which ended in failure in April, was also scheduled to launch during the same daily window. It eventually blasted off at 7:39am local time, according to reports.

Just as last time, the letter has been sent in the name of Ko Nung Du, who is identified as director general of the DPRK’s Maritime Administration.

It’s almost identical word-for-word with that sent earlier this year.

As before, it notifies of areas where it believes the rocket’s first and second stages will fall into the ocean should the launch is successful.

An addition this time is an area where the satellite fairing, the protective cover that surrounds the satellite during the first stage of launch, is expected to fall back to sea.

Comparing the areas notified last time and this time, changes can be seen.

The first-stage drop zone is a little further to the south and east that April’s launch while the second-stage drop zone is more tightly defined.

Here’s a couple of close-ups of the first- and second-stage drop zones. The April launch zones are in orange and the December zones in yellow. (click on the images to make them larger)

December launch zone

December launch zone

Here’s a copy of the letter from the DPRK embassy in the U.K. to the IMO.


I’ve just received the text of the notice the DPRK has issued to pilots. The “notice to airmen,” usually abbreviated to NOTAM, contains the same information as the communique to the IMO.

 TIME: 2200-NEXT 0300(UTC) DAILY
//PART 01 OF 02//. DAILY 2200-NEXT 0300, 09 DEC 22:00 2012 UNTIL 22 DEC 03:00
2012. CREATED: 01 DEC 08:05 2012
354406N 1243030E
354407N 1245423E
345836N 1243232E
345843N 1245611E
181344N 1234837E
181254N 1244520E
153107N 1234624E
153017N 1244219E
334006N 1240747E
333951N 1251229E
322422N 1240750E
322407N 1251137E. GND - UNL //PART 02 OF 02//, DAILY 2200-NEXT 0300, 09 DEC
22:00 2012 UNTIL 22 DEC 03:00 2012. CREATED: 01 DEC 08:05 2012

DPRK plans satellite launch in December


North Korea’s state news agency said Saturday that the country plans to launch a satellite later in the month.

The launch will be the second the country has attempted this year. The last, in April, ended in failure when the rocket failed to make it to orbit.

Confirmation comes after several days of speculation the country was preparing for a launch at the Sohae-ri Satellite Launch Facility in the country’s north. Satellite images of the launch facility had showed increased activity consistent with a launch.

The KCNA bulletin, which was released Saturday afternoon, said the rocket would take a safe flight path. Previously, it flew directly south of Sohae over the sea, passing over Okinawa and on to the Pacific Ocean. First and second stage drop points were to the west of South Korea and off the east coast of The Philippines. More details will likely be released by North Korean authorities in the coming days and weeks.

The launch comes as South Korea is also trying to put a satellite into orbit. Launch of the rocket was called off on Thursday shortly before scheduled take-off and another attempt is due soon.

Here’s the KCNA news in full:

Pyongyang, December 1 (KCNA) — A spokesman for the Korean Committee for Space Technology issued the following statement Saturday:

The DPRK plans to launch another working satellite, second version of Kwangmyongsong-3, manufactured by its own efforts and with its own technology, true to the behests of leaderKim Jong Il.

Scientists and technicians of the DPRK analyzed the mistakes that were made during the previous April launch and deepened the work of improving the reliability and precision of the satellite and carrier rocket, thereby rounding off the preparations for launch.

The polar-orbiting earth observation satellite will blast off southward from the Sohae Space Center in Cholsan County, North Phyongan Province by carrier rocket Unha-3 in the period between December 10 and 22.

A safe flight path has been chosen so that parts of the carrier rocket that might fall during the launch process would not affect neighboring countries.

At the time of the April launch, the DPRK ensured utmost transparency of the peaceful scientific and technological satellite launch and promoted international trust in the fields of space science researches and satellite launch. The DPRK will fully comply with relevant international regulations and usage as regards the upcoming launch, too.

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