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Countdown to Launch: Tanker Trucks Spotted at Rocket Fuel/Oxidizer Bunkers

By
05 February 2016


New commercial satellite imagery of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station (“Tongchang-dong”) from February 3 and 4 shows the arrival of tanker trucks at the launch pad, specifically at the old fuel/oxidizer bunkers. Contrary to recent reports, the presence of these tankers more likely indicates the filling of fuel/oxidizer tanks within the bunkers than the fueling of the space launch vehicle (SLV). In the past, such activity has occurred 1-2 weeks prior to a launch event and would be consistent with North Korea’s announced launch window of February 8 through 24.

Additionally, activity continues around the horizontal processing building, which in the past has been used to receive the rocket stages, assemble them in a horizontal position to test all connections, perform final testing of subsystems and prepare the stages for mounting on the launch pad. Specifically, the imagery shows 10, 16 and 6 vehicles (including 1-2 buses and a crane) present on February 2, 3 and 4 respectively. This level of activity compares favorably to that seen prior to the previous launch in 2012 and further supports the current stated launch window.

New Activity at the Launch Pad Fuel/Oxidizer Storage Bunkers

Imagery from February 3 shows the arrival of two tanker trucks at the old fuel/oxidizer storage bunkers. One day later, imagery shows only one tanker truck. Contrary to press reports, the presence of these vehicles probably indicates the filling of the fuel/oxidizer tanks within the bunkers rather than the beginning of fueling of the space launch vehicle. (This activity suggests that the new bunkers until recently under construction are not yet operational.) In the past such fueling activity has occurred 1-2 weeks prior to a launch event.

Figure 1A. Tanker trucks arrive around the fuel/oxidizer bunkers.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Figure 1B. Fuel/oxidizer bunkers getting filled. 

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

The February 3 and 4 imagery indicates no significant changes at the launch pad itself. The work platforms on the gantry tower remain folded forward, with the environment covers in place, obscuring any activity that might be taking place within and whether there is a space launch vehicle present.

No personnel or vehicles appear present elsewhere on the launch pad, although some personnel are seen walking (or riding bicycles) on the roads throughout the facility. The rail-mounted transfer structure, which could be used to move the various rocket stages delivered to the underground station to the launch pad, remains at the south end of the pad adjacent to the stationary processing building. Although there is no activity indicating an imminent launch, the gantry tower and launch pad complex appear to capable of conducting a launch within the announced launch window.

Low Activity at other Key Launch related Facilities

Recent imagery continues to indicate a low level of activity at other key facilities likely to be involved in a space launch. Specifically:

  • There are no significant changes noted on the February 2 and 3 imagery at what is believed to be the Launch Control Building. Activity at this facility should increase as the launch date grows closer.
  • One vehicle was observed at the Satellite Control Building in the February 3 imagery, but it is not present a day later. In the February 3 image, no vehicles were observed at the VIP housing area, but one vehicle is present on February 4. Extended vehicle activity in this area—as seen prior to the 2012 launch—would suggest that scientists and engineers are present.
  • At least one vehicle (car or bus) has been present at what is believed to be the National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA) Auditorium since February 2. No activity or significant changes are noted at the adjacent helicopter pad on any recent imagery. Guests, dignitaries and workers would potentially view the launch from this location.
  • Four to five vehicles have been observed at the facility administrative and security headquarters near the entrance of the facility since February 1.

Figure 2. Vehicles seen around the NADA Auditorium.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Vertical Engine Test Stand Appears Ready

Activity noted at the vertical engine test stand during the last month indicates that an engine test could be conducted at any time and with little prior notice. There are no significant changes noted at the vertical engine test stand in any imagery since February 1. The rail-mounted environmental shelter remains immediately adjacent to the test stand. No personnel are visible and there are no indications that an engine test has recently taken place.

Figure 3. Vertical Engine Test stand remains quiet.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2016. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, 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.