Yesterday morning, at around 9:30 a.m. Pyongyang time, North Korea fired a rocket into space. On the East Coast, the news broke at about 7:30 Saturday night. Earlier this month, North Korea announced they would launch a satellite in February, but no one really expected it to happen so quickly. We followed the updates live as they came in. Now that the dust, literal and metaphorical, has started to settle, what do we actually know about the rocket North Korea used, and about the object they hurtled into space?
North Korea Claims Total Success
This is the least helpful part of the whole process. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is a tightly controlled pariah state, where even modest improvements to submarine missile launch technology get buried in hour-long propaganda videos and recut to demonstrate a glorious success.
The official statement from North Korea contains both technical information:
Carrier rocket Kwangmyongsong blasted off from the Sohae Space Center in Cholsan County, North Phyongan Province at 09:00 on February 7, Juche 105(2016). The satellite entered its preset orbit at 09:09:46, 9 minutes and 46 seconds after the lift-off.
The satellite is going round the polar orbit at 494.6 km perigee altitude and 500 km apogee altitude at the angle of inclination of 97.4 degrees. Its cycle is 94 minutes and 24 seconds.
Installed in Kwangmyongsong-4 are measuring apparatuses and telecommunications apparatuses needed for observing the earth.
And hyperbolic praise:
The complete success made in the Kwangmyongsong-4 lift-off is the proud fruition of the great Workers' Party of Korea's policy on attaching importance to science and technology and an epochal event in developing the country's science, technology, economy and defense capability by legitimately exercising the right to use space for independent and peaceful purposes.
This is from the video North Korean state television broadcast of the launch:
The Satellite Is In Space And It Is Very Quiet
Kwangmyongsong-4 appears to be in orbit, but it hasn't yet transmitted anything detectable. Transmission is key: there's a pretty great account of NASA researcher and radio enthusiast Henry Richter listening for the transmissions from Russia's Sputnik satellite, and a recording of the beeps can be heard online. If North Korea's satellite isn't transmitting, that likely means it doesn't work, and turns a space launch from a technological triumph into an expensive way to dump waste in orbit.
It's possible the satellite is transmitting and just hasn't been heard yet. At North Korea Tech, Martyn Williams writes:
North Korea hasn't published any technical details about the satellite's transmissions. A starting point is the 470MHz frequency said to be used by Kwangmyongsong 3-2, but even that was an approximate one.
So far, there have been no reports of transmissions from the satellite.
We also don't know what we're listening for. In the past, North Korea claimed its satellites were broadcasting the Song of Kim Il Sung and Song of Kim Jong and morse code. This time we're not sure. The only stated mission is earth observation.
The Satellite Matters Less Than The Rocket
No one really likes North Korea, and given the hermit kingdom's propensity for surprise illegal nuclear weapons tests, combined with its mass starvation of its own people, that skepticism is well-earned. In response to the latest launch, South Korea and the United States issued a joint statement about working together to “begin formal consultations regarding improvements to the Alliance missile defense posture, specifically the viability of a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system operated by U.S. Forces Korea.” So, essentially, improve and deploy a weapon made for destroying rockets.
Yet as much as this is a test of North Korean rocket technology, it doesn't really have the characteristics of a normal ballistic missile program. Key to standard ballistic missile operation is the ability to launch the missiles quickly. As Tyler Rogoway writes at Foxtrot Alpha:
Some will say that these launches should be treated as ballistic missile tests more than anything else, and obviously, there is a dual use for such a rocket system. Yet these rockets rely on liquid fuel and sit on the pad for days before launch, giving ample time for all parties to prepare for their use. Nor does North Korea have a warhead capable of being used in such a ballistic missile.
So as much as countries move to counter this rocket, it's likely not a threat yet, and won't be without significant improvements, both to North Korean rockets and to their warheads. It's always possible that North Korea's scientists learned something new for a weapons program with the test, but we'll have to wait and see, and we shouldn't be running to fallout shelters just yet. In the meantime, we can wait to see if their satellite transmits anything, or is just another object in space.