After extending its launch window by a week—leading the world to believe technical problems would postpone the launch—North Korea last night conducted its second satellite-launch attempt of 2012 and successfully placed an object in orbit.
The launch was essentially a repeat of April’s launch, using the same launcher, satellite, and trajectory. Based on the previous launch, the satellite was expected to be placed in orbit at an altitude of about 500 km. Initial tracking information shows that the satellite is in an orbit of 494 km x 588 km, with an inclination of 97.4 degrees, putting it in a sun-synchronous orbit. The satellite is not thought to be very capable, but will give North Korea experience communicating with it and downloading low-resolution images.
This appears to have been Pyongyang’s fifth launch attempt. The first was in August 1998 with the three-stage Taepodong 1 launcher, which used a version of the Nodong missile as a first stage. In that case, all three stages ignited but the third stage apparently went out of control and disintegrated before reaching orbit.
The July 2006 launch failed less than 40 seconds after launch, and there remains some question about whether it was intended to be a satellite launch or a missile launch. It is believed to have used a much bigger rocket than in 1998, with a first stage powered by four Nodong engines—a configuration that has been used since then.
In the April 2009 launch, the first two stages appeared to work but not the third. This rocket was launched on a path that carried it east over Japan, which cause international outcry. The April 2012 attempt was instead launched south from a new launch site on the western coast of the country, following a path similar to that of South Korean launches. That attempt had problems with the first stage and apparently the second stage did not ignite.
From past launches, we knew that North Korea has been able to build or buy working components for a rocket. The main difficulty is getting all the parts to work together and at the same time, given the enormous complexity of rockets. Even with this success, North Korea has no confidence in the reliability of the rocket, which undermines its utility for military purposes. Politically, however, the launch will very likely have an impact on the way other countries view North Korea. And the fact that the North beat South Korea into orbit will be point of pride, and is quite an achievement.
One interesting question is whether North Korea really had last-minute technical problems that it managed to fix, or whether it orchestrated a campaign to fool those watching the launch. On December 10, the Korean Central News Agency released a statement saying that scientists “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 [from Dec. 22].” A South Korean news story the next day reported that the rocket had been covered with a “camouflage net;” if true, that may have led to press stories that the rocket had been removed from the launch pad to be repaired. It’s possible this was intended to reduce the number of monitoring sensors that were deployed by the U.S., Japan, and South Korea to collect information about the launch.