Sohae Satellite Launch Facility: Three Year Upgrade Program Likely Near Completion

A 38 North exclusive with analysis by Jack Liu

Recent commercial satellite imagery indicates that construction at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station (“Tongchang-ri”) of new propellant (fuel/oxidizer) storage bunkers at the launch pad and engine test stand appear to be near completion, signifying what is likely the end of a three-year upgrade program. That program is probably designed to support future activities related to the testing and launching of larger rockets. With the upgrade program nearing completion, North Korea will be ready to conduct further activities at Sohae, including space launches, by the first quarter of 2016 should the leadership in Pyongyang decide to do so.

Construction of New Propellant Bunkers at Launch Pad Almost Done

Commercial satellite imagery from October through late November 2015 indicates that construction of new propellant bunkers continues and is nearing completion. The new structures are located in the fuel/oxidizer storage area of the launch pad. Their characteristics—for example: regularly spaced vents jutting above the roof and bunker style construction—are similar to the other two structures at the west end of the launch pad and the propellant bunkers at the engine test stand. The two structures are separated by a strong common center wall since the fuel portion of the propellant must be stored separately from the oxidizer to prevent explosions as well as to support the weight of the roof. Fuel and oxidizer lines running from the bunkers to the gantry tower are not apparent, however, either because of the limited resolution of the image or they have yet to be installed.

Figure 1. Construction overview at the Sohae Launch Pad.

Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2015. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact thirtyeightnorth@gmail.com.
Image includes material Pleiades © CNES 2015. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

Figure 2. Double tier construction with common center wall.

Images include material Pleiades © CNES 2015. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

Testing of Recently Completed Movable Transfer Structure at Launch Pad Continues

Testing appears to have continued between October and November of the recently-built Movable Transfer Structure, completed in July 2015, intended to move rocket engines ready for launch from the Stationary Preparation Building, finished at the same time, to the gantry tower. Imagery from October 18 shows the structure at the gantry tower but by later that month and in late November, the structure is located at the Stationary Preparation Building.

Figure 3. Movable Transfer Structure testing appears to continue.

Images include material Pleiades © CNES 2015. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

Figure 4. Movable Transfer Structure remains at end of pad.

Images include material Pleiades © CNES 2015. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

Construction at Vertical Test Stand Nearing Completion

Recent commercial satellite imagery indicates that work begun in September 2015 on new propellant storage bunkers is progressing and should also be completed by early 2016. Probable fuel and oxidizer tanks and related equipment are visible beginning in mid-October and appear to be awaiting installation inside four newly constructed storage bunkers. By late November, the tanks and equipment are no longer visible, possibly because they have been installed.

Concurrent with the work on the new propellant bunkers, work may be underway to connect them to the engine test stand, which is hidden by an environmental cover. Based on the size of the new bunkers, it is reasonable to assume that the construction is intended to support testing of larger and more powerful engines.

Figure 5. Construction continues at the Vertical Engine Test Stand.

Images include material Pleiades © CNES 2015. Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image, all rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

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