How Will North Korea Deal With Rocket Failure?
The long-awaited launch of North Korea’s Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite has finally happened — and apparently has ended in failure. Now what?
Even before Friday’s liftoff, failure seemed like the most likely option. The things that I saw this week during our amazing insider tour of the North Korean space program made me even more doubtful that the Earth-observing satellite would be successfully placed in orbit.
The fallout from a mission failure could follow any of several possible scenarios. A lot depends on the circumstances surrounding the failure.
One of the most straightforward scenarios would involve an explosion just after liftoff from North Korea’s new Sohae launch base . This may not be as easily detectable as it sounds, especially since the video transmission from the launch site has been tape-delayed. In that case, “no news” is all the news there will be, until a later announcement that the launch was “indefinitely postponed.”
NBC’s space expert answers your questions
Local residents north of the base — and we saw lots of villages there — would notice the explosion, but might not even connect it with a rocket. And rumors would be unlikely to spread very fast in such a tightly controlled society.
After a minute or so of flight, the rocket will be high in the skies over the western half of the country, including the capital, Pyongyang. Any “energetic event” (NASA’s favorite euphemism for a bad-ass explosion) would streak the sky with a burst of flame — but no sound.
Lots of people would see it, and some foreign visitors might even get a picture. But these photographs and videos would be recognized for what they showed only if the launch was announced within a minute of liftoff.
Another opportunity for failure could have come after a well-publicized liftoff, after the vehicle vanished over the southern horizon. The critical third-stage burn, which apparently involves a fairly sophisticated sideways jog to slip into the proper final orbit, would be too far away for in-country tracking sites to receive signals.
The wait for confirmation would be excruciating, because the satellite’s orbit is not projected to pass within radio range of North Korea for 11 hours. This is a real situation — I’ve checked the orbital flight path myself — and it’s caused by the steep polar orbit of the vehicle.