Pyongyang’s Space Launch in Pictures

North Korea conducted the fourth launch of a space launch vehicle (SLV) on February 7, 2016 at 9 AM (PYT), the third from its Sohae Satellite Launching Station. While commercial satellite imagery from the date of the launch was not available in time to make a judgment that it was imminent, ground and satellite pictures have subsequently become available clearly demonstrating that the launch was about to and did occur.

Figure 1. Launch of the Unha-4 carrying the Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite at 9:00 AM (Pyongyang Time) on February 7, 2016.

Photo: KCTV.
Photo: KCTV.

Rocket Stage Moves from Horizontal Processing Building to Launch Pad

Commercial satellite imagery from February 6 shows a small convoy of four vehicles moving from the horizontal processing building to the launch pad. The two small vehicles at the head of the convoy appear to be guide vehicles; the third vehicle is a heavy tractor-trailer carrying an approximately 9.4-meter-long object that is probably the third stage of the Unha-4 satellite launch vehicle (SLV); and the fourth vehicle is likely a tractor-trailer that may be a support vehicle or may be carrying the SLV’s payload section. Personnel are seen walking alongside the third vehicle and at the end of the convoy. The heavy concentration of vehicles around the horizontal processing building and the security headquarters compound, and the general lack of activity elsewhere, strongly indicated imminent launch preparations.

Figure 2. Convoy seen transporting a rocket stage to the launch pad.

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On February 7, only 2 hours after the launch, these tractor-trailers can be seen parked on the south side of the launch pad (see figure 5).

Activity at the Launch Pad Before and After the Launch

Imagery on February 6 showed that the work platforms on the gantry tower were still folded forward, essentially unchanged since January 25. However ground photography taken immediately before the launch showed a view looking southwest at the launch pad and the Unha-4 is clearly visible. The work platforms, with their environmental covers, are folded back and components of the fuel/oxidizer bunkers can be seen in the background. The difference in size between the gantry tower and SLV are notable here and are an indication that the tower was built to handle larger launch vehicles.

Figure 3. Work platforms on the gantry tower still folded on February 6.

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Figure 4. Photo of the gantry tower just before the launch on February 7.

Photo: KCTV.
Photo: KCTV.

On February 7, imagery just after the launch shows the work platforms folded back, revealing the plug that the rocket sits on. No personnel or vehicles were observed on the launch pad. However, what appears to be a small vehicle is on the road to the launch pad and a few personnel may be near the fuel/oxidizer storage bunkers.

Figure 5. Launch pad just hours after the launch.

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Heightened Activity at Other Facilities

The observed level of activity at other key facilities appears to have increased markedly which would be expected in the period immediately before and after a launch.

  • On February 7, instead of the typical 1-3 vehicles, there are 10 vehicles present at the Sohae administrative and security headquarters near the entrance. It appears they were concentrated here in preparation for the launch.

Figure 6. Vehicles at the administrative and security headquarters.

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  • While no vehicles were observed on February 6 at the National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA) building, on February 7, two vehicles are adjacent to the building and on the road leading to the helicopter pad. This building appears to be a possible NADA auditorium or “observatory” from which guests, dignitaries and workers can view the launch, as well as the mission control center. Kim Jong Un appears to have observed preparations and the launch from this location.

Figure 7. Two vehicles near the NADA building.

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Figure 8. Kim Jong Un, looking south from the NADA building, watching the launch of the Unha-4 carrying the Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite.

Photo: KCTV.
Photo: KCTV.
  • On February 7, there are only three vehicles (one possibly a bus) present at the horizontal processing building and covered rail station, where the most activity had been observed in the days and hours prior to the launch.

Figure 9. Only a few vehicles left at the horizontal processing building.

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  • Located approximately 650 meters southwest of, and overlooking, the launch pad is what has previously been used as a VIP observation building (for both space launches and rocket engine tests) and a telemetry position. While no activity had been observed there leading up to the launch, on February 7, a vehicle and what appears to be a small number of personnel are present.

Figure 10. Vehicle and personnel present at the observation and telemetry facilities.

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  • On February 7, a few personnel can be seen walking in the parking area at what has previously been identified as the launch control building. While this may, in fact, remain the de facto launch control building, mission control appears to now be located at the NADA building.

Figure 11. Personnel seen at the launch control building.

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  • One vehicle is present in the VIP housing area on both February 6 and 7. No vehicles are present in either image at what has previously been identified as the Satellite Control Building.[1]

Figure 12. Vehicle parked at the VIP housing.

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[1] It is unclear what the current purpose of this building is with mission control now seeming to be at the new NADA building and the completion of a satellite control facility in Pyongyang. It has been suggested that this is, and may have always been, the payload (satellite) processing building.

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