By 38 North
11 December 2012
Postscript: Press reports that North Korea launched the Unha rocket this evening were confirmed by US, Japanese and South Korean government sources. At this writing, it is unclear whether the launch was successful although unconfirmed reports have indicated that the rocket flew over Okinawa on its way south. Our analysis stated that the full rocket was on the pad as of December 10 and that all other facilities had completed preparations for the test. But we assumed the Unha first stage would be moved to the assembly building for repairs. That clearly didn’t happen and why remains unclear. More tomorrow.
A NorthKoreaTech/38 North exclusive, with contributions by Nick Hansen and Michelle KaeNew 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. (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.
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.
Figure 4. New probable instrumentation buildings near launch pad.
Figure 5. Instrumentation site appears fully operational.
Figure 6. Observation building appears operational.
Figure 7. VIP hotels seem to be heated, with access roads cleared.
Figure 8. The control building gate has opened.
Table 1. Extended weather forecast.
|12/12||W||-1°||-7°||0 mm||0 CM||Partly sunny|
|12/13||TH||3°||1°||0 mm||0.1 CM||Low clouds|
|12/14||F||4°||1°||4 mm||0 CM||Rain and drizzle|
|12/15||SA||5°||-3°||0 mm||0 CM||Mostly cloudy|
|12/16||SU||3°||-2°||0 mm||0 CM||Partly sunny|
|12/17||M||3°||-5°||0 mm||0 CM||Cloudy|
|12/18||TU||2°||-4°||0 mm||0 CM||Sunny|
|12/19||W||5°||-3°||0 mm||0 CM||Cloudy|
|12/20||TH||4°||-3°||2 mm||0.1 CM||Rain|
|12/21||F||1°||-11°||8 mm||4.1 CM||Mix of snow, ice and rain|
|12/22||SA||-2°||-15°||0 mm||0 CM||Windy|
|12/23||SU||-4°||-16°||0 mm||0 CM||Mostly sunny|
|12/24||M||-7°||-16°||0 mm||0 CM||Partly sunny|
|12/25||TU||-7°||-16°||0 mm||0 CM||Windy and cold|
|12/26||W||-7°||-16°||0 mm||0 CM||Partly sunny|
|12/27||TH||-6°||-12°||0 mm||0 CM||Cloudy|
|12/28||F||0°||-9°||0 mm||0 CM||Warmer|
|12/29||SA||0°||-7°||0 mm||0 CM||Clouds and sun|
|Note: Cholsan was selected as the location constant because of its proximity to the observed launch site and forecast availability across multiple weather news organizations. There are limitations that prevent a more comprehensive analysis of the weather forecast’s effects on the impending launch. Across various weather-reporting services, they forecasted similar temperature ranges over the same period of time, but projected different temperatures for each day. Furthermore, the accuracy of any weather forecast typically drops after five to seven days.|