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Still No Sign of Launch Preparations at North Korea’s Sohae Launch Facility

By
03 September 2015


A 38 North exclusive with analysis by Jack Liu and Joseph S. Bermudez

Summary

While speculation that North Korea intends to launch a long-range space launch vehicle (SLV) on the 70th anniversary of the Korean Workers’ Party in October continues, it is still not possible to determine whether Pyongyang will conduct such a launch using commercial satellite imagery. Imagery from August 27 and September 1 show that a movable structure on the launch pad—intended to transfer SLV stages and components from the Stationary Preparation Building to the gantry tower—has shifted back and forth since observed in mid-August.

That movement may have occurred for a number of reasons ranging from testing the recently completed movable structure to launch preparations. Besides the fact that the general low level of activity throughout the facility suggests a launch is not going to occur over the next few weeks, in the case of a possible October launch, it is probably still too soon to move the SLV to the gantry.

Construction activity at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station (“Tongchang-ri”) since spring 2015 has made it more difficult to spot launch preparations. Nevertheless, there are indicators likely to be present a few weeks before a launch that such preparations are underway, such as a significant increase in fuel loading and pressure testing activity at the fuel and oxidizer buildings. Moreover, it may also be possible to spot the SLV itself at the gantry.

Recent imagery also shows construction at the vertical engine test stand that will allow the testing of larger, more capable rocket engines is proceeding rapidly. That work, however, is unrelated to the question of whether the North will conduct a new launch in the near future.

Movement of the Rail Mounted Transfer Structure between the Two Ends of the Launch Pad

On August 27, the Movable Transfer Structure was observed at the gantry tower compared to its location at the Stationary Preparation Building at the other end of the launch pad in mid-August. Four days later, the Movable Transfer Structure was back at the Stationary Preparation Building.

Figure 1. Activity at the Sohae Launch Pad.

Images include material Pleiades © CNES 2015. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Figure 2. Movable Transfer Structure next to Stationary Preparation Building at the Sohae Launch Pad.

Image © 2015 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image © 2015 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Figure 3. Close up of structures at Sohae Launch Pad.

Image © 2015 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image © 2015 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

There are a number of possibilities for this activity. For example, the North Koreans may be conducting fit and operational testing of the new platform equipment and the gantry tower given that construction has only recently been completed. That testing may include refining and practicing new procedures for stacking SLV stages onto the launch vehicle at the assembly tower using the new equipment. The September 1 imagery seems to support the likelihood of a roll up door on the Movable Transfer Structure that opens a part of the roof. The truss structure to hold all that weight on the roof is evident. The probable roll up door lies between the two trusses on the left. August 27 imagery shows the gantry crane centered directly over the transporter roof. Through such an opening in the transport structure’s roof, the gantry crane can directly hoist a launcher stage from the transporter for stacking onto a launch vehicle at the assembly tower. That would be a significant improvement over past practices and would expedite launch preparations.

One other possibility is that the North Koreans are moving forward with preparations for an October launch on the 70th anniversary of the Korean Workers’ Party. Besides the fact that the general low level of activity throughout the facility suggests a launch is not going to occur over the next few weeks, in the case of an October launch, it is probably still too soon to move the SLV to the gantry.

Recent construction since spring 2015 has made it more difficult to spot launch preparations. Nevertheless, there are indicators likely to be present a few weeks before a launch that such preparations are underway, such as a significant increase in fuel loading and pressure testing activity at the fuel and oxidizer buildings. Moreover, it may also be possible to spot the SLV itself at the gantry.

Construction Continues at Vertical Engine Test Stand

Imagery from mid-August through September 1 indicates that construction of two new storage buildings for fuel and oxidizer continues at a rapid pace, with the roof of one building completed. Additional construction vehicles and supplies are present throughout the area. At this rate, work may be complete by October. It is likely these new buildings will support future testing of more capable SLV engines, another sign that Pyongyang intends to field larger SLVs in the future. Moreover, the speed of construction may indicate that the North intends to start testing these engines in the near future. It does not, however, mean that Pyongyang intends to conduct a space launch soon.

Figure 4. Accelerated construction at the engine test stand.

Image © 2015 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image © 2015 DigitalGlobe, Inc. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.