Sohae Satellite Launching Station: Imagery Evidence of a Pending Satellite Launch

North Korea’s notification to Japan and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) of plans to launch a satellite between May 31 and June 11 appears to fulfill its recently reported goal to put a military reconnaissance satellite in orbit in June. The Sohae Satellite Launching Station is ideally suited for such a launch, as a southern trajectory over open ocean waters prevents overflight of nearby countries.

Commercial satellite imagery from May 30, 2023 reveals what could be launch preparations at both launch pads, making it difficult to determine which site might be used. However, the arrival of three covered railcars, observed parked near the old Horizontal Assembly Building, suggests the main satellite launch pad is more likely.

Main Satellite Launch Pad

Since our last report, a number of movements have occurred at the main satellite launch pad. Imagery from May 30 reveals significant changes as the rail-mounted transfer structure has now aligned with the launch tower, a move that has, in the past, indicated the movement of a rocket from the final assembly building to the gantry tower to ready for launch. While the pad is largely cleared of equipment and materials, three vehicles are located on the pad. One, a cab-over truck has its trailer backed to the tower. The trailer is long and cylindrical, but whether it is a liquid tank carrier or possible rocket component cannot be determined.

The gantry tower service arms are open, meaning a launch vehicle could be loaded in at any time. The imagery angle precludes more precise analysis of the status of a rocket placement. As the fuel and oxidizer tanks have been removed, support vehicles or equipment for those processes will be necessary to successfully launch a rocket from the pad.

Figure 1. Close up of the main satellite launch pad from May 30, 2023. Image © 2023 Planet Labs, PBC cc-by-nc-sa 4.0. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected].

New Coastal Launch Pad

Since first observed under construction on April 30, the new pad has apparently gone from simple foundations to an operationally ready launch pad. Imagery from May 30 revealed significant changes to the pad, including building a new retractable shelter over the mobile assembly and checkout structure, and the movement of that structure over the launch stand and lift mechanism, obscuring the north end of the pad.

On the south end of the pad, there are several vehicles of unknown function, although one may be a mobile crane seen previously. There are also two possible fuel or oxidizer tanks on the east side of the pad. If so, they are unprotected, suggesting a temporary placement. Off the pad to the south, there is a protected hillside alcove, where possible canisters or small, dark-colored pieces of equipment are located.

Figure 2. Close up of the new coastal launch pad from May 30, 2023. Image © 2023 Planet Labs, PBC cc-by-nc-sa 4.0. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected].

Horizontal Assembly Building

Since May 22, a three-car train set has been visible immediately west of the old Horizontal Assembly Building. The railway directly services the main satellite launch pad by connecting to the covered rail transfer station. Of the three covered railcars, the two shorter cars are approximately 12 meters in length. The larger is approximately 23 meters in length. Railcars of these lengths were seen in the open at the station on July 6, 2014, and a train of two 12-meter and two 23.5-meter cars were present. Those railcars were assessed to be related to the movement of rocket body components.

Figure 3. Close up of the Horizontal Assembly Building from May 23, 2023. Image Pleiades NEO © Airbus DS 2023. For media options, please contact [email protected].
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