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North Korea gets ready to launch

Unha 3The launch of North Korea’s latest satellite is guaranteed to be successful, if your space news comes from the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the nation’s Orwellian wire service. But experts outside the country are deeply sceptical as to whether the  rocket will work.

This will be the fourth launch attempt by the North Koreans, and it bears many similarities to their  most recent shot in 2009. Over at the Union of Concerned Scientists, David Wright has a great side-by-side comparison of the new rocket, known as the Unha-3, to its predecessor, the Unha-2.  To Wright’s eye, the rockets look pretty much the same. Both use three stages, the bottom two of which resemble scaled-up versions of Soviet-era technology.

One important difference will be the direction that the latest launch will be travelling. According to a notice to airmen that details possible splashdown zones of the rocket’s stages, the Unha-3 is headed due south. In 2009, the Unha-2 travelled east over Japan, getting a boost from Earth’s rotation in the process.

Part of the reason for the new direction may be the satellite the rocket is carrying. KCNA reports that the satellite, known as Kwangmyongsong-3, is an Earth-observing satellite. Such satellites are often launched into polar orbits to maximize their coverage. But it’s equally possible that the satellite is being launched south to avoid Japan, which has threatened to shoot down the rocket if it passes over Japanese territory. The satellite looks remarkably similar to South Korea’s first satellite, which was launched in 1992, but there’s no way to tell what it’s actual capabilities might be, says Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a rocket enthusiast. The one thing McDowell is sure of is that it would make a lousy spy satellite. “We’re talking kilometre or, at best, hundred-metre resolution,” he says. In other words, they would be better off doing their spying on Google Earth.

What are the chances of success? “I’ll be impressed if they get past the first and second stage separations,” McDowell says. Getting rockets to work requires plenty of practice, and the North Koreans just can’t afford the number of launches needed to perfect the many systems required for success. The 2009 launch of the Unha-2 is believed to have crashed because its third stage failed to fire, and a similar failure could easily end North Korea’s current space ambitions.

I’m jealous of North Korea’s journalists. They can write about the successful launch on their own schedule and hit “post” just as soon as the controllers hit the ignition button. Personally, I’ll have to watch the South Korean media, amateur observers and US Northern Command to find out whether the satellite actually flies.

Image: Getty


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