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NK's 2nd satellite launch attempt fails, plans another in Oct.

Despite second military reconnaissance satellite launch failure, experts say progress in engine technology appears to have been made

By Ji Da-gyum

Published : Aug. 24, 2023 - 04:04

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People watch a news report on North Korea's failed satellite launch on Thursday at Seoul Station. (Photo - Yonhap) People watch a news report on North Korea's failed satellite launch on Thursday at Seoul Station. (Photo - Yonhap)

North Korea admitted an attempt to launch a military reconnaissance satellite into orbit ended in failure Thursday, but pledged to conduct another launch in October.

North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration launched a Malligyong-1 spy satellite using a Chollima-1 space launch vehicle at Sohae Satellite Launching Station in the Tongchang-ri area of North Pyongan Province, according to North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency.

The first- and second-stage flights of the new satellite launch vehicle Chollima-1 operated successfully. However, during the third-stage flight, an "anomaly in the emergency explosion system resulted in a failure," the KCNA said.

The NADA announced its intention to investigate swiftly the irregular functioning of the emergency explosive system, provide an explanation and proceed with a third Chollima-1 launch in October. The country's first failed launch was in May.

Nevertheless, the NADA claimed that the failure was not attributed to the reliability of the propulsion systems or engine used in each stage flight or to significant problems within the systems.

South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff on Thursday refrained from confirming whether the report from North Korean state media was based on facts, adding that it was currently analyzing the launch while considering various possibilities.

But the JCS confirmed that North Korea's attempt to launch what it claimed to be a "space launch vehicle" had failed, declining to provide further details.

The launch vehicle flew in a southern direction from the Tongchang-ri area, North Pyongan Province, at around 3:50 a.m., according to the JCS. It traversed international airspace above waters west of Ieodo, a submerged rock situated within the overlapping exclusive economic zones of South Korea and China.

Both South Korean and US intelligence authorities assessed that the launch vehicle was actually launched from a new launch pad situated in the coastal region to the east of North Korea's Sohae Satellite Launching Station, a senior military official said on condition of anonymity during a closed-door briefing.

The first-stage rocket, fairing and second-stage rocket, respectively, landed in waters of the West Sea of the Korean Peninsula, the East China Sea and waters east of the Philippines' Luzon Island, according to Japan's Defense Ministry. All of these components deviated from the drop zones originally designated by North Korea.

The South Korean military has initiated operations to search for and salvage launch debris in the West Sea, deploying naval vessels and aircraft.

(The Korea Herald) (The Korea Herald)

Experts pointed out that the trajectory of the flight suggests that the engines of the launch vehicle's first, second and third stages ignited successfully, and there was successful stage separation as well.

This marks an advancement when compared to the initial attempt to put a military reconnaissance satellite into orbit on May 31. In the previous launch, the launch vehicle carrying the satellite crashed into the waters west of South Korea's Eocheongdo in the West Sea shortly after takeoff.

But experts were mixed about North Korea's satellite launch capabilities and the motivations underlying its decision to conduct a third launch in October.

Chang Young-keun, the director of the missile center at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, explained that the term, "emergency explosion system," likely corresponds to a "flight termination system." The system is designed to enable controlled termination of a vehicle's flight when needed.

"My assessment is that a technical malfunction led to the unintentional activation of the emergency explosion system, resulting in the explosion of the third-stage rocket. It is assumed that the satellite attached to the third stage was lost in space," Chang said.

"The decision to proceed with a third launch in October is based on the confidence that there are no problems with the operation of the first-, second- and third-stage rockets, including stage separation."

Chang pointed out that North Korea's swift commitment to a relaunch is probably underpinned by their ability to receive telemetry data remotely. This data has likely provided them with the reassurance that the failure was due to the flight termination system.

Telemetry data refers to the collection and transmission of measurements or information from remote or inaccessible locations to a receiving station for monitoring and analysis.

The photo shows the debris of North Korea's launch vehicle that plunged into the waters some 200 kilometers west of the western island of Eocheong in the West Sea, hours after it was launched from the area of Tongchang-ri, North Pyongan Province, on May 31. (Photo - South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff) The photo shows the debris of North Korea's launch vehicle that plunged into the waters some 200 kilometers west of the western island of Eocheong in the West Sea, hours after it was launched from the area of Tongchang-ri, North Pyongan Province, on May 31. (Photo - South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff)

However, Lee Choon-geun, an honorary research fellow at South Korea's Science and Technology Policy Institute, was less sanguine on Pyongyang's telemetry capabilities, even as he acknowledged the significant progress the country has made since May.

Lee pointed out that notable advancements have been made in resolving the stability and reliability issues associated with the second-stage engine, all of this without the availability of a necessary specialized vacuum chamber testing facility. Pyongyang had attributed the failure of the initial launch to the malfunction of the second-stage engine.

But Lee cast doubt on whether "North Korea possesses the necessary equipment and technical expertise to diagnose problems and determine causes during the separation of the third stage." The skepticism about the North's telemetry capabilities is particularly relevant given that the third stage's trajectory covers vast distances of hundreds to thousands of kilometers at hypersonic speeds within the atmosphere.

Experts also emphasized that North Korea has once again hastily pursued another satellite launch, possibly aiming to present it as a significant achievement of the Kim Jong-un regime, particularly in light of challenging domestic circumstances such as a prolonged economic recession, as well as the detrimental impact of heavy rain and typhoons on crop production.

"Normally, following a failed space rocket launch, the process of conducting a comprehensive investigation to identify the cause of the failure typically spans from six months to even a year. Subsequently, precise corrective actions are meticulously implemented before conducting a relaunch," said Yang Uk, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies think tank.

However, North Korea proceeded with a relaunch in the short span of 85 days following the initial failure. Moreover, the country promptly announced the approximate date for the third launch in October just 2.5 hours after the launch flop.

"Fundamentally, one should comprehend that North Korea's choice to proceed with the launch by the end of August was likely driven primarily by political considerations rather than military requirements," Yang said.

"Such a decision aligns with the political objectives of the North Korean leadership."

US President Joe Biden (center) speaks during a trilateral summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (far right) and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol at Camp David, Maryland, on Aug. 18. (Photo - AFP) US President Joe Biden (center) speaks during a trilateral summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (far right) and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol at Camp David, Maryland, on Aug. 18. (Photo - AFP)

Thursday's launch can be seen as a response to the Camp David summit between South Korea, the US and Japan on Aug. 18. The timing of the launch coincides with the ongoing 11-day joint interagency Ulchi Freedom Shield military exercise involving South Korea and the US that continues until the end of August.

Additionally, on an internal level, the satellite launch serves the purpose of marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of the country on Sept. 9.

"The announcement of a relaunch in October also seems to have the purpose of highlighting Kim Jong-un's accomplishments, in line with the anniversary on Oct. 10 that commemorates the establishment of the Workers' Party of Korea, or other significant political occasions," Yang noted.

But Lee also pointed out the significance of seasonal considerations for satellite launches, citing the example of nitrogen tetroxide, a chemical compound often used as an oxidizer in rocket propulsion systems. Nitrogen tetroxide freezes at temperatures of minus 11 degrees Celsius.

"As winter approaches, the prospect of the oxidizer freezing becomes a prominent concern. Consequently, unless specific insulation measures are implemented, October could mark the final opportunity to contemplate another launch this year," Lee said.