North Korea launches long-range rocket with Kwangmyŏngsŏng-4 satellite
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has carried out the latest step of its controversial space program on Sunday, Feb. 7, sending a long-range rocket into space in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions. The rocket, carrying the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-4 satellite, blasted off at 9:00 a.m. local time (00:30 GMT; 7:30 p.m. EST on Saturday, Feb. 6) from the Sohae Space Center in Cholsan County, North Phyongan Province.
North Korea insists that the mission’s task was to put an Earth-observation spacecraft into orbit, but Western countries believe it was a test of a banned missile capable of hitting the U.S. The Korean Central Television (KCTV), which is the only official source of television news in the isolated nation, stated that the launch is “legitimately exercising the right to use space for independent and peaceful purposes”.
The Unha-3 rocket used for the launch is capable of reaching the western areas of North America or to place a small satellite into orbit. It is believed that the booster has a range of more than 6,200 miles (10,000 kilometers).
Initially, the launch was to take place between Feb. 8 and 25, but DPRK advanced the launch window to Feb. 7–14. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un signed the order to launch the satellite on Saturday, Feb. 6.
According to information from U.S. Strategic Command, the Unha-3 rocket, after a short vertical ascent, started heading South over the Yellow Sea. South Korean and Chinese media report that the first stage of the rocket disintegrated into around 270 fragments and fell onto the western waters of South Korea about seven minutes into the flight.
“NORAD determined that at no time was the missile a threat to North America. The men and women of USSTRATCOM, NORAD and USNORTHCOM, and USPACOM remain vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations and are fully committed to working closely with our Republic of Korea and Japanese allies to maintain security,” U.S. Strategic Command said in a statement.
Shortly after launch, South Korean President Park Geun-hye called an emergency meeting of the National Security Council to discuss countermeasures. A 2006 UN resolution bans North Korea from carrying out nuclear tests or the launching of ballistic missiles.
U.S. lawmakers called for stronger sanctions on the communist country underlining that the launch was carried out just a month after the nation had conducted its fourth nuclear test.
“Kim Jong-un has taken yet another belligerent step threatening the interests of the United States and our allies,” Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement. His views were echoed by others.
“North Korea’s latest act of belligerence is further evidence that we must act to counter the Forgotten Maniac,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said.
He added that the launch came on the heels of “North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, and third nuclear test during the Obama Administration.”
Major European countries also condemned the launch, calling it a violation of U.N. resolutions and an “irresponsible” and “senseless” provocation.
“These actions represent a direct threat to international peace and security in the region and beyond, and they further aggravate tensions on the Korean Peninsula to the detriment of all,” the European Union foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement.
North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA) has stated that the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-4 satellite was delivered into a Sun-synchronous polar orbit of some 307 miles (494.6 km) perigee altitude and 311 miles (500 km) apogee altitude at a 97.4-degree angle of inclination, with a cycle of 94 minutes and 24 seconds. The spacecraft, which has a mass of approximately 440 lbs. (200 kg) is expected to be operational for up to four years.
The 98-ft. (30 m) tall Unha-3 is a three-stage rocket, weighing about 91 metric tons. It is approximately 7.88 ft. (2.4 m) in diameter and uses Kerosene fuel and Inhibited Red Fuming Nitric Acid oxidizer as propellants. The rocket is capable of delivering up to 220 lbs. (100 kg) into a Sun-synchronous polar orbit. The first launch of Unha-3 was carried out in April of 2012, but it was unsuccessful as it failed to reach targeted orbit.
Sunday’s launch is the fourth orbital mission for the Unha family of rockets. Two of these launches were unsuccessful. The mission is seen as part of the events to celebrate the “Day of the Shining Star”, the birthday of North Korea’s late leader Kim Jong Il as it comes only nine days ahead of the anniversary.
Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.