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North Korean Rocket Technology Far From Mature

04-24 14:38 Caijing
Rocket debris from North Korea's recent failed satellite launch could provide vital clues to the cause of the rocket's malfunction, its technology level, as well as its long-range missile technology capabilities.

By staff reporters He Tao, Cai Tingyi and Lin Jing

More than 10 South Korean and U.S. naval vessels returned empty-handed April 17 after searching the Yellow Sea for four days for rocket debris from North Korea’s recent ill-fated rocket launch.

North Korea’s “Galaxy-3” rocket, carrying the “Bright Star-3” earth observation satellite, took off from a satellite launch site near the Yellow Sea on April 13. Two minutes after taking off, the rocket exploded in the air and split into over 20 pieces of debris, which then fell into the Yellow Sea about 100-150 kilometers from South Korea’s west coast.

Parties’ explanations differ as to the cause of the malfunction.

“After takeoff the rocket experienced unexpected vibrations, possibly causing the fuel supply tube to crack; it is also possible that structural defects caused fuel to leak and trigger an explosion,” said an expert from the Korea Aerospace Research Institute.

Senior Colonel Tang Zhicheng of the People’s Liberation Army Second Artillery Force Command College operational command laboratory said the explosion may have been caused by a failure in the rocket’s self-destruct system. “The United States and South Korea reported that after the explosion, the rocket’s second and third stages split into three pieces, while its first stage split into 17 pieces. From this we can infer it was the first stage rocket that destabilized and exploded.”

The launch may have also been rushed to coincide with the celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the birth of founding leader Kim Il-sung. Choi Ying Jiu, honorary professor of Peking University’s Institute of Korean Culture Studies, told Caijing that in 2009 the “Galaxy-2” rocket was launched after 44 days of testing and preparation; in contrast, the preparation time for the “Galaxy-3” was only 28 days.

Since South Korea’s efforts to salvage fallen rocket debris failed, the precise cause of the accident won’t be known until North Korea releases the results of its own investigation report.

“The three failed satellite launches prove that North Korea’s multistage rocket technology is far from mature and still in a relatively early stage,” said Tang Zhicheng.

North Korea denied the rocket was for military use, stating the aim of the launch was to put a commercial satellite into orbit. Still, the United States, South Korea and Japan condemned the launch amid concerns that North Korea could use the satellite to test its long-range missile technology.

A nation that possesses intercontinental missile technology theoretically also has the capability to launch long-range nuclear strikes. Nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles are like bullets and a gun; if either one of the two is absent, the role of nuclear weapons as a strategic deterrent is marginalized.

Currently, North Korea is equipped with a variety of short- to medium-range ballistic missiles, including the Musudan medium-range missile that has a maximum range of 3,000 km and can reach anywhere in Japan. However, to shoot farther, North Korea must make breakthroughs in multi-stage missile technology. The country has tried to assemble the “building blocks” of small- and medium-sized rockets, namely upper and lower dockings or bindings. However, numerous technical bottlenecks would have to be overcome for North Korea to develop mature intercontinental missile design and manufacturing techniques.

First, North Korea’s launch vehicle system is unreliable and its multistage rocket separation technology is deficient. Second, its missile warhead re-entry technology has not been adequately tested and will be difficult to weaponize. The so-called re-entry phase refers to the period a missile must re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere after being shot into space; at this point, the missile will encounter multiple problems such as high-temperature ablation and rolling resonance.

Moreover, building the type of miniaturized nuclear warheads which can be carried on long-range, intercontinental ballistic missiles is a matter of extreme complexity.

“Even if we disregard the country’s domestic livelihood issues and international sanctions, it will still be very difficult for North Korea to achieve (a functional long-range missile system) in the next five to 10 years,” said Tang Zhicheng.

Full article in Chinese: http://magazine.caijing.com.cn/2012-04-22/111822218.html

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