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Satellite spies on North Korea's countdown to launch

DigitalGlobe

This picture from DigitalGlobe's QuickBird satellite shows the launch pad at the Tongchang-ri Launch Facility in North Korea, as seen on April 9. Three dark-colored support vehicles are lined up on the launch apron. The rail-mounted mobile launch platform is toward the bottom of the pad, with an exhaust deflector that's designed to deal with the hot blast of launch.




While North Korean officials were showing off their preparations for a controversial satellite launch, DigitalGlobe's Quickbird satellite was snapping high-resolution pictures of the scene from far above. The images reveal how far the North Koreans have come — and how much can be gleaned about their intentions from orbit.

DigitalGlobe is a commercial satellite imagery provider, and QuickBird can provide pictures at a resolution of a half-meter (20 inches) per pixel. But you can bet that U.S. intelligence agencies are getting significantly better views of the Tongchang-ri Launch Center from their satellites.


North Korea is due to launch its Unha-3 ("Milky Way 3") rocket anytime between now and April 16, ostensibly to send an Earth-observing satellite known as Kwangmyongsong-3 ("Bright Shining Star 3") into a pole-to-pole orbit. The United States and its allies worry that the launch is really more of a test of North Korea's capability to launch intercontinental missiles as weapons.

International journalists, including a team from NBC News, were invited to visit the secretive hard-line communist nation this week for an on-the-ground assessment of the space mission. NBC News space analyst James Oberg said that in its current configuration, the booster is "not a military missile ... but it's darn close."

"This rocket is not a weapon, but it's maybe 98 percent of one," Oberg said. "It can be converted all too easily and all too frighteningly into a weapon, and they don't need it."

AmericaSpace's Craig Covault said the Tongchang-ri facility is clearly built to handle rockets much larger than the Unha-3. He quoted U.S. and South Korean intelligence analysts as saying they believe the complex could be used for tests of North Korea's "Satan" long-range ballistic missile, as well as a North Korean-Iranian booster with up to six engines clustered in the first stage.

"Iran and possibly North Korea plan to use the large new space launch booster to send Iranian and North Korean astronauts into space," Covault wrote. He lays out a Korean-Iranian missile development program that sounds positively scary.

North Korea might have been hoping that this week's visit by journalists would put Washington's fears to rest. But based on the feedback so far, it doesn't sound as if that'll be the case.

Here's tonight's report from NBC News' Richard Engel in Pyongyang:

A North Korean satellite is poised to launch to commemorate the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung, but there are some doubts over whether it will ever go into orbit. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

... Here's a computer-generated animation of the expected launch from Analytical Graphics Inc.:

This animation from AGI shows the launch and possible path of the Unha-3 long-range rocket, aimed at putting the Kwangmongsong-3 satellite into orbit. Video courtesy of Analytical Graphics Inc. (AGI). Visit http://agi.com/northkorea for additional resources.

... And here are more satellite pictures from DigitalGlobe:

An orbital view from DigitalGlobe's QuickBird satellite shows North Korea's Tongchang-ri Launch Facility from an altitude of 420 miles (680 kilometers).

James Oberg / msnbc.com (left) / DigitalGlobe (right)

The map of the Tongchang-ri Launch Facility that was displayed by the North Koreans during a news briefing (left) is compared with the overhead view from DigitalGlobe (right). The orientation of the satellite picture has been rotated to approximate the orientation of the map.

DigitalGlobe

This satellite view shows the horizontal processing building at the Tongchang-ri Launch Facility in North Korea, with a support vehicle parked in the dark-colored parking lot below the building.

DigitalGlobe

This DigitalGlobe satellite image, taken from orbit on April 9, shows the Tongchang-ri Launch Facility in North Korea. The structure in the lower part of the frame is known as the high-bay processing building, and the structures in the upper pat are housing facilities. VIP housing is at leff.

More about North Korea's space plans:


Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.