Rocket stages, fairing fell in predicted areas; North not believed to have developed re-entry tech
It took 9 minutes and 29 seconds for North Korea’s Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite to enter orbit after successfully separating from its propellant stages, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) said on Tuesday.
The running time almost corresponds to Pyongyang’s statement of 9 minutes 46 seconds.
“The place where the first and second-stage propellants and fairings fell down is similar to the Unha-3 (the North launched in 2012),” the unnamed MND official told the Yonhap News Agency, adding the “material of the propellant stages is similar.”
The first propellant stage and fairing fell in the expected areas, where North Korea had previously notified international organizations, at 9:32 a.m., two minutes after Sunday’s launch.
The second propellant stage’s separation was not accurately detected but the MND assumed it fell to the east side the Philippines’ Luzon Island.
“It’s in orbit but we need to see more to judge whether it is operating normally while there’s no signal detected,” MND spokesperson Kwon Ki-hyun told NK News.
Previously U.S. media outlet CBS News reported that the satellite was “tumbling in orbit,” citing an unnamed U.S. official. But Martyn Williams from North Korea Tech told NK News there had been no confirmation as to whether or not the satellite was broadcasting any signals.
“The only way to verify that is with optical observation and I’m not aware that any amateurs have done that yet,” Williams said.
The MND assumed that North Korea intentionally blew up the first propellant stage into “270 pieces” in order to complicate South Korea’s investigation.
Seoul’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) reported on Sunday that the satellite weights approximately 200 kg, lawmakers Lee Cheol-woo from the Saenuri Party and Shin Kyeong-min from the Minjoo Party said.
The Kwangmyongsong-4 is reportedly heavier than the satellite deployed in the previous launch, though the lawmakers said its low weight meant it was unlikely to be functional. The NIS judged that North Korea’s rocket launch is designed for a missile launch, saying the satellite must weigh more than 800 kilogram.
But observers familiar with satellite technology said the weight of the orbiting device was not relevant for assessing functionality.
“The South Korean statements about 200kg satellites aren’t correct,” Williams said. “There are plenty of smaller satellites in orbit capable of communications and earth observation that weigh a fraction of that. The weight of a satellite is a poor indication of its capabilities.”
Both the National Intelligence Service (NIS) and MND suspect, however, that Pyongyang’s re-entry technology, the most technically challenging part of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) development, has not been sufficiently developed.
“Putting an object into orbit doesn’t prove they have all the necessary capabilities to conduct a strike with such a missile,” said John Grisafi, NK News director of intelligence.
“A warhead has to come back down to earth. It needs to both be able to survive re-entry, which involves a very large amount of friction and heat, and navigate during that phase to its target.”
According to the satellite detecting websites N2YO and Lizard-tail, the satellite is orbiting the planet. It is located 508.18 kilometers (315.9 miles) from the surface, and traveling at a speed of 7.61 kilometers per second.
On the same day as the MND’s announcement, North Korea’s state-run newspaper the Rodong Sinmun revealed a picture of Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, where 150,000 people celebrated the successful launch.
(Ha-young Choi is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She studied Korean history, mainly focusing on modern Korean history at Korea University. Follow her on twitter @Hy_Choi0826) – Vice News