Is the Rocket on the Sohae Launch Pad? A 38 North Exclusive

This was originally a Geoeye satellite image from April 4, but the image has since been recalled and not approved for publishing. So, you'll just have to "trust us" on this one.

Analysis of commercial satellite photographs taken on April 4 of North Korea’s Sohae Launch Center indicates some evidence to suggest that the first stage of the Unha-3 rocket, while not visible, may be stacked in the gantry.[*]

If Pyongyang is following the timeline previously published by 38 North (based on the experience of past rocket launches in 2006 and 2009), the first stage of the Unha-3 should have been stacked on the mobile launch stand on April 1 or 2, followed by the 2nd and 3rd stages the next two days. Unfortunately, cloud cover over the launch site from April 1-3 made it impossible to observe the stacking process if it did occur.

Commercial satellite photographs taken on April 4 reveal the gantry’s work platform is now covered and closed around the mobile launch stand, indicating work is being conducted inside, but also making it impossible to determine whether the Unha-3 or any part of it is erected on the pad. Moreover, the platform is enclosed by canvas to protect it from weather but also to further ensure that activity inside is not visible. (Previous satellite imagery dating back to March 28 showed the platform open and no stages present.)

There are some indicators to suggest, however, that at least the first stage may be stacked in the gantry and the launch date is growing closer. First, the fueling activity observed for the past week seems to have been completed. Most of the empty fuel and oxidizer tanks appear to have been removed from the buildings that supply the first stage, indicating an end to the delivery of propellants.

Second, the North Koreans appear to have erected a barricade or security checkpoint for vehicles entering from the west, the only road to the pad from other main facilities at the range. This barrier or checkpoint, not present in March 28 satellite photos, indicates heightened security at the pad—something present.

Third, the launch pad itself has been cleaned up and objects seen near the gantry previously have been removed. The scraping of the area adjacent to the south side of the pad down to dirt has also been completed and the brush cut up to the fuel buildings to reduce the chance of a fire reaching them. It also appears that a layer of dirt has been spread into the concrete flame trench probably to reduce erosion by the rockets exhaust gases.

Other activities at the launch site include:

  • Portions of the dirt parking lots at the horizontal and vertical assembly buildings have been covered with asphalt or sprayed with oil between March 28 and April 4. This may be part of a beautification project to get the facilities ready for the visit of Kim Jong Un and international guests to observe the launch.
  • A crane has been moved to the front entrance of the horizontal assembly building and four vehicles are on the road entering the compound. The purpose of the crane is unknown.
  • The two meter trailer mounted dish which is either a radar tracking antenna or a SATCOM dish has been removed from the area in the northeast corner of the building’s parking lot. Its new location has not yet been found.
  • At the new instrumentation site spotted in our previous analysis, a white bus is on the road near the facility and several small vehicles are parked inside the site. The small building at the end of the road has been painted a bright orange, the first significant activity seen at the site since the trailer-mounted dish antenna was parked there between March 7 and 28.

[*] This analysis is based on images obtained by 38 North from Geoeye on April 4. Subsequently, the satellite provider withdrew those pictures from its public catalog and asked that they not be published.

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