North Korea launched a satellite, then apparently blew up its booster

Enlarge / A television monitor at a train station in South Korea shows an image of the launch of North Korea’s Chollima 1 rocket Tuesday.

Kim Jae-Hwan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

North Korea launched a small military spy satellite Tuesday on the country’s first successful orbital launch since 2016. This, alone, would be newsworthy, but this launch comes with a twist.

A remotely operated camera in Seoul, South Korea, set up to detect meteors streaking through the atmosphere, captured the launch. North Korea’s Chŏllima 1 rocket appears on the horizon, climbing higher in the night sky until its booster engine cuts off. Then an upper stage engine fires to continue powering its payload into orbit, leaving behind the rocket’s spent expendable booster to fall into the Yellow Sea west of the Korean Peninsula.

Then, the night vision camera recorded a bright fireball. Instead of plunging into the sea, the booster explodes. It’s unusual to see a spent booster blow up during the launch of expendable rocket, so this raises questions. Did North Korea intentionally explode its rocket?

Falling into the enemy’s hands

The launch Tuesday was the third flight of North Korea’s Chollima 1 rocket, which appears to be more sophisticated than the launch vehicles North Korea used to deploy its first two successful satellites in 2012 and 2016. This rocket is likely based on North Korea’s newest intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong 17, designed to deliver nuclear warheads to targets around the world.

With the addition of an upper stage, the design of which is unknown, the Hwasong 17 can be turned into a satellite launcher capable of hauling a payload of several hundred pounds into orbit. Intelligence officials in South Korea believe the new missile and the Chollima 1 rocket use engine technology North Korea acquired from Russia. The booster’s propulsion is likely based on the RD-250 engine, which consumes hydrazine in combination with nitrogen tetroxide. When those storable propellants come together, they automatically combust, making the engine design relatively simple and a good solution for a missile that needs to be on long-term alert.

North Korea’s first two Chollima 1 launches in May and August ended in failure. After the May launch, South Korean officials said the country’s navy recovered relatively large rocket pieces from the Yellow Sea. South Korea’s military said at the time that it would inspect the debris to determine whether foreign parts, such as Russian engine technology, were used on the rocket.

South Korean naval forces recovered pieces of a North Korean rocket after a launch in May.
Enlarge / South Korean naval forces recovered pieces of a North Korean rocket after a launch in May.

South Korean Navy

It would make sense that North Korea would take the unusual step to rig its booster to explode before falling intact into the ocean, where South Korean vessels could recover the debris. That seems to be a likely explanation, according to analysts who track North Korea missile launch activity.

Marco Langbroek, a Dutch archeologist who expertly tracks missile launches on his website, concluded the booster explosion “could well have been deliberate” to keep the North Korean rocket from falling into the hands of South Korea.

The rest of the North Korean launch sequence appeared to go according to plan. The second stage of the Chollima 1 rocket continued into space, and a third stage then placed North Korea’s Malligyong 1 satellite into orbit.

North Korea’s state-run news agency declared the launch a success, and publicly available tracking data from the US military appears to confirm this. The military’s tracking radars detected the satellite in a polar orbit roughly 310 miles (500 kilometers) above Earth.

Images released by North Korea before the launch appeared to show the Malligyong 1 satellite is about the size of a refrigerator, larger than the satellites North Korea put into orbit before, but still too small to provide the highest-resolution reconnaissance imagery collected by spy satellites from the United States and other leading space-faring nations.

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