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N. Korea may have aborted rocket launch, says expert

Publication Date : 08-05-2012


The flight of North Korea’s long-range rocket that failed on April 13 may have been terminated intentionally by the command centre, a US rocket expert said.

According to David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the reason for the failure is unclear from the information provided by South Korean and US authorities and that its flight could have been aborted by the command centre shutting down the engines after mechanical failures developed.

“It is also possible that the launch was aborted by the command center before mechanical failure could fully set in,” Wright said in an article published on May 4 on the North Korea analysis website 38 North. He added that while it is unclear whether North Korea’s command centre intentionally caused the failure, there have been reports that the rocket was fitted with a flight termination system.

“It is possible that if … the first stage burned to completion but there was a problem with staging that the North may have aborted the flight at that point.”

According to Wright, the disparity in the information provided by the US and Seoul makes it difficult to make informed guesses about the cause of failure.

The US Northern Command said that the first stage of the missile fell into the sea 165km west of Seoul, while South Korea’s Ministry of National Defence stated that debris of the rocket fell in to the West Sea between 100 and 150 kilometres west of Gunsan, North Jeolla Province.

According to Wright’s calculations, the area pointed to by the US would be about 300 kilometres from the launch site in Dongchang-ri, North Pyongan Province, indicating that the failure lay within the first stage of the rocket.

Using the data provided by the South, which puts the drop zone about 400 kilometres away from the launch site, the failure is likely to have occurred during the separation of the second stage after the first stage rocket functioned as intended.

With regards to what North Korea would have gained from aborting the launch, Wright speculates that Pyongyang would have gained “little or no information about the performance of several key systems in the upper stages” as the rocket failed too soon after launch.

Wright also argued that while it was not unusual for rocket systems to fail while under development, North Korea’s successive failures and the lack of flight testing indicates that Pyongyang’s long-range rocket program is “less advanced than widely assumed”.


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