14 December 2012, 17:46

New member of the exclusive space club

New member of the exclusive space club

The successful launch of North Korea's Unha-3 rocket on December 12, 2012 became the top news in the world of cosmonautics. Even the previous day's story of the United States launching, for the third time, its X-37B unmanned experimental OTV-3 (“Orbital Test Vehicle”) was eclipsed by Unha-3. The flight's duration, aims and objectives though have yet to be disclosed.

News of the successful North Korean rocket launch provoked heated reactions at all levels, from space fans to high-ranking state officials. If we lay aside the political and economic considerations, launching a satellite is, in any case, an outstanding achievement for any country. However, it should be mentioned that, according to North Korean media, the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3, put into orbit on December 12, is actually the country's third such satellite: another two were launched in August, 2008 and in April, 2009. But back then, they went unnoticed in orbit; so there was nothing to talk about. But this time the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has confirmed the latest satellite launch. The height of its orbit is about 500-580 km with an orbital cycle of around 95 minutes.

It is noteworthy that this is the second attempt to put the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 into orbit. The first, in April, ended in failure when the carrier rocket exploded over the Yellow Sea. It is interesting that many representatives of the leading mass media from various countries were invited to the launch, but were not allowed to see the start.

This time too there was more intrigue, the day before the start, rumours emerged that the rocket, with the satellite aboard, had been removed from the launch pad because of technical problems. The next thing anyone heard were reports of a successful launch.

The Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3’s precise purpose has not been disclosed, but, according to North Korean representatives, it is an Earth observation satellite. Even though the satellite is now functioning at a basic level, it will be a few weeks before it is fully operational. However, some experts from the United States are expressing concern that North Korean specialists may have lost control of the satellite, though in the absence of real information, it is impossible to know for certain if this is really so.

In general, in the last day or so, the world community's reaction has switched from harsh censure of North Korea's violation of the UN Security Council’s resolutions, to the more reasonable, though no less negative, argument that the launch does not suggest North Korea possesses a large enough arsenal to pose a threat to other countries. Some believe that the rocket's launch is more likely to be an attempt at blackmail aimed at encouraging humanitarian assistance than a real threat.

There is also another aspect, which we could call psychological; half a century ago, it was not a great power that was destined to launch the world's first satellite, but the Soviet Union. The Country that was widely considered to be hopelessly out of date in technical and economic terms. Something similar is happening now on the Korean Peninsula, although, of course, on a significantly smaller scale. While South Korea's KSLV rocket is constantly being postponed (the revised launch date, initially scheduled at the end of October, has still not been announced), North Korea has successfully fulfilled its own plan. Of course, one launch does not necessarily mean the existence of a complete space program yet, but the DPRK Foreign Ministry has already announced its intention to continue with its space agenda to launch more satellites for peaceful purposes. However, the details are not made public.

Meanwhile, the American X-37B unmanned spacecraft remains in orbit after almost two days, and its goals are almost as mysterious as the North Korean satellite’s. The spacecraft, which has already been in orbit from April to December 2010 for the first OTV mission, is now in space; again. Thus demonstrating the feasibility of a reusable spacecraft, which was one of the objectives of the entire program. It was launched using the Atlas V501 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force base. The duration of the X-37B flight is not specified, but its predecessor remained in orbit for 15 months, six months longer than originally planned.

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