Launch plans indicate largely unchanged Unha 3 rocket

A North Korean Unha-3 rocket at Sohae satellite launch center on April 8, 2012 (Photo: Sungwon Baik/VOA)

Rocket drop zones listed in maritime warnings issued by North Korea indicate its planned February satellite launch will take place on a rocket not dissimilar to the Unha-3 that it used on two previous launches in 2012.

The drop zones are areas of the sea into which the first stage, second stage and satellite fairings will fall during the launch and are influenced by the size and power of the rocket.

“It looks like they may have tinkered with the Unha-3, but the splashdown zones are similar enough that I don’t think it’s the new larger rocket that analysts have been wondering about,” said Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies in Monterey, California.

Hanham is referring to recent sightings of rocket models in the North Korean media bearing the name “Unha 9.”

The first-stage and fairing drop zones for the planned launch are in blue on this map, the drop zones for the December 2012 launch of Kwangmyongsong 3-2 are in yellow.

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“Just a touch north of the last lot,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “Maybe they measured the previous flight as being a little lower thrust than designed and are adjusting predictions, or maybe this payload is slightly heavier. But seems likely to be the same general type of vehicle.”

The second stage drop zone, off the coast of Luzon, is also a little to the north.

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While they differ in their latitude, they line up in longitude indicating North Korea is hoping to launch a satellite into the same orbit as its previous launch. That successfully delivered a satellite into orbit, but scientists do not appear to have ever been able to take control of the craft. When last observed, it was spinning through space.

North Korean state media has yet to comment on the launch plans and satellite images of the launch site haven’t revealed the rocket.

The country said it plans to conduct a satellite launch sometime between February 8 and 25th. The timing is thought to have been chosen to coincide with the February 16th anniversary of the birth of late leader Kim Jong Il.

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