North Korea Surprise Satellite Launch

Note: 14th in a series on North Korea
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Unha-3 Rocket Launch

Late Tuesday, North Korea (DPRK) surprised the world by successfully launching an earth orbiting satellite from its snow-cover Sohae launch site in subfreezing temperatures.

In less than ideal conditions, yesterday’s launch went flawlessly.

The North had made three previous attempts to orbit a satellite that all ended in failures, including a very public attempt last April.

Expert satellite imaging experts got caught with their pants down on this one. They must be stunned.

Successful Launch Confirmed

Approximate Flightpath of Successful Satellite Launch

In an official government statement, North Korea announced to the world:

Unha-3 was blasted off at 9:49:46 am on December 12, Juche 101 (2012) at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Cholsan County, North Phyongan Province and put Kwangmyongsong 3-2 into orbit accurately at 9:59:13, 9 minutes 27 seconds after take-off.

The satellite is travelling in a polar orbit 499.7 km perigee and 584.18 km apogee at a 97.4-degree angle of orbital inclination with a period of 95 minutes 29 seconds.
NAENARA announcement, 12/12/2012

Satellite launch and tracking expert Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics confirmed the successful orbit of the Kwangmyongsong satellite on this blog posting at Kwangmyonsong means “star of hope” in Korean.

McDowell confirmed DPRK’s announced orbital elements and also confirmed a reasoned theory that the 3rd stage rocket burn would be yawed in order to place the satellite into orbit.

The U.S. Space Command is tracking the satellite. It’s been given the satellite catalog number 39026 and the international designator 12-072A.

The Experts Get Fooled

Earlier in the day yesterday, Nick Hansen of 38North, in conjunction with experts from NorthKoreaTech, had jointly analyzed satellite images of the snow covered launch site taken just the day before:

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.
– Nick Hansen and Michelle Kae, 38North, 12/11/2012

They predicted a launch could not occur before December 21st. Whoops!

Outside of secretive agencies known only by cryptic initials, 38North and NorthKoreaTech are the very best in the business when it comes to analyzing DPRK’s weapons of mass destruction. They are not often wrong.

The experts were fooled by several factors:

  • Bad weather
  • DPRK announcement the day before that they had “technical difficulties”
  • DPRK announced they extended the launch window to December 29th
  • Lack of definitive, observed activity at the launch site the day before
  • The 3rd stage was delivered on-site just 3 days previous

Heck, speculation that DPRK was even considering a launch came as a shock when activity at the launch site was first noticed on November 28th. There had been years between previous launch attempts and DPRK has never before attempted anything like this in winter. The forecast high temperature the day of the launch was only 29º Fahrenheit.

DPRK had officially announced their intent to launch just days before, and then extended the launch window to December 29th after “technical difficulties” were acknowledged yesterday.


The North Koreans still have tricks up their sleeve. They pulled the wool over the eyes of the West this time.

The unimagined factor overlooked by Western experts is that North Korea was in a mini-space race with South Korea to be the first to launch an earth orbiting satellite from the Korean peninsula.

South Korea has twice announced and then cancelled attempts to launch an earth orbiting satellite since October. The South also just announced an agreement with the United States to bolster its anti-missile capability against the North.

Add to that the first anniversary of previous North leader Kim Jung-Il’s death on December 17th in ancestry worshiping North Korea, and reaction is etched in stone.

The North had to respond. Westerners don’t realize it, but every time North Korea speaks, they always assume they speak for the entire peninsula and not just the North. It is in every news broadcast they make. They think they speak for all Koreans.

That is why the North launched.


About azleader

Learning to see life more clearly... one image at a time!

Posted on Dec 12, 2012, in culture, economics, Life, national security, news, North Korea, Opinion, Politics, Thoughts, unha-3. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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