Image: Sohae Satellite Launch Station
Digital Globe via AP
A Nov. 23 satellite image from Digital Globe shows the launch complex at North Korea's Sohae Satellite Launch Station. North Korea says it's preparing to launch a satellite from the facility later this month.
By NBC News space analyst
Special to NBC News
updated 12/3/2012 4:36:17 AM ET 2012-12-03T09:36:17

North Korea has two things to prove to the world when it tries once again to put a satellite into orbit, as announced over the weekend. First, engineers have to prove that they've solved the technical problems that led to an embarrassing launch failure in April. Second, officials have to prove that their intentions are as peaceful as they say they are.

As hard as the first challenge is, the second one may be harder.

Some observers have referred to this month's scheduled launch as a test for a long-range missile capable of hitting the United States, but this weekend's statement from Pyongyang was explicit: The North Koreans say they are simply trying again to put a satellite into orbit.

Story: North Korea sets midmonth timeframe for rocket launch

The mission has been portrayed as a do-over for April's launch of the Unha rocket and Kwangmyongsong satellite. The launch will once again take place at the Sohae Satellite Launch Station, where our NBC News team and other foreign journalists were given a pre-launch tour. Once again, the rocket is due to fly almost due south, putting the satellite in a polar orbit, according to warnings posted for fliers and mariners in the projected impact zone.

This time, however, the North Koreans are hoping to avoid premature impact. In April, the first stage of the three-stage Unha rocket disintegrated near the end of its two-minute thrusting phase, with the debris plunging into shallow waters west of the South Korean coastline.

Good news, bad news
From the North Koreans' perspective, the good news is that the first stage worked properly on at least two earlier launches, where upper stages then failed. So the design is probably fixable.

But clues as to the nature of the failure have been scanty. Any debris that was recovered is probably in South Korean (and perhaps U.S.) hands. The available telemetry about the rocket's operating parameters probably was not extensive.

The bad news is that North Korean engineers have had to struggle against a top-down obedience culture that probably led to the previous failures. Over the decades, space workers in the West and in Russia have learned a bitter lesson about spaceflight: that all engineers need to be empowered to say "wait" if they detect something not quite right. But when I met with the North Korean space program's leaders in April, that concept seemed alien to them.

Clues to April's disaster
The flight path might contain one clue, since the disintegration seemed to occur just past the point of maximum aerodynamic pressure on the rocket. Buffeting increases rapidly with speed, but also drops off as air thickness diminishes. There is a point where it is most severe, and a large number of bad things can happen in this phase.

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But there were worse pressures than the aerodynamic ones. The North Korean space team had been ordered to launch on a political schedule, with overtly ideological overtones. In such an environment, small errors can slip by, unflagged, by fearful workers hoping for the best. We can't tell from here the degree to which such a pervasive attitude allowed flaws to remain unfixed. The problem may be that the North Koreans can't, either.

I saw no indications from the interviews and discussions in April that they were even aware of the potential for problems. Everything else in their culture obeys the commands of the Great Leader — so why shouldn't rockets, too?

That attitude explains the absolutely blank astonishment with which our escorts responded to the news, relayed to us by colleagues overseas, that the April 13 launch had occurred, and quickly failed. We might as well have told them that space aliens had taken over all the world's capitals, or that the dead had risen and zombie armies were on the march. They were wide-eyed with the inability to form a rational response.

Russia, China press N. Korea to scuttle planned rocket launch

From the moment the rocket had been launched — in secret, despite a repeated promise that we would be allowed to "observe" the liftoff — none of the North Koreans dealing with us ever mentioned it again. They didn't even acknowledge to us that it had failed.

It was as if somebody had zapped them all with some little flashy thing that erased all memory of us ever being invited to observe the rocket. Rocket? What rocket? Surely we were all here for their centenary celebration of Kim Il Sung's birth!

Can they prove peacefulness?
And that raises the second critical unknown that needs repair. Can the North Koreans really demonstrate what they had invited us in for last April: that the aim of the launch is merely to put a peaceful satellite into orbit, with no military significance.

Image: Mission Control director
KCNA via James Oberg
Mission Control director Paek Chang Ho (center) faces journalists during a press tour in April. NBC News' James Oberg can be seen at far left in this screenshot from the Korean Central News Agency's coverage of the briefing.

In April, our hosts showed us a lot of stuff — but nothing really critical to the issue of military versus civilian use. They showed us what they said was a satellite to be carried by the rocket, which they also showed us. But they never showed us the satellite being transported to the launch pad and mounted on the rocket. They never even showed pictures or video of that process, or what really was under the nose cone when the rocket lifted off. When challenged directly, they promised to do so. Then they showed us nothing.

The nose cone was large enough to have carried other small objects besides the satellite, and the most worrisome alternative payload was a "re-entry vehicle," or RV. This is the heat-shielded capsule necessary to let a warhead survive the fiery return into the atmosphere on its way to its target.

The presence of an RV is also the unambiguous signature of a weaponized rocket. So if that actually were the secret purpose of the entire rocket program, disguising it — or even just adequately obscuring it — for as long as possible would be a major diplomatic goal.

The only real evidence for what was under the nose cone last April is indirect. Since the South Koreans and friends scoured the sea bottom where the rocket's fragments fell, surely they would have publicly revealed evidence that such a device had been found — even if only in fragments, assuming that a destruct charge was installed on the spacecraft.

Whom do you trust?
The North Koreans ended up providing no evidence that the satellite had been installed on the rocket, beyond their verbal assertions. But was there any other way to calibrate such assertions?

Some of the technical data we were given was legitimate. I had prepared some calibration tests of my own.

When I asked the Mission Control director how long it would be before the satellite's signals were first picked up in North Korea, he answered "about 11 hours." And because I had calculated that myself before leaving for North Korea, I knew the answer was correct.

Data screens we were shown at the Launch Control Center and the Mission Control Center omitted a lot of the plotted data, clearly for security reasons. But even without the ascent trajectory graph filled in, the display still had its X and Y axes fully labeled with actual numbers, which gave me confirmation of how high the initial launch leg would be. And a ground track plot showed the satellite passing across Antarctica with precise lat/long lines remaining. That provided precise information on the orbital inclination they were aiming for.

Other clues, however, suggested that the North Koreans were well-versed in deception. All of the space officials we met, from the escorts to the center directors, repeated the refrain that their first two satellites had successfully entered orbit. Nobody beyond the border of their own country believes that. Both rockets seem to have failed during the third stage of the ascent. Nothing was ever tracked in orbit, either by any national radar network or by worldwide private associations of visual and radio observers.

Yet when pressed, the officials refused to waver. They would reel off a list of alleged confirmations, that were known in the West as ambiguous clues that were later explained by other factors.

Finally, when pressed again by another journalist, the Mission Control director came up with a new explanation of why nobody else in the world had ever heard any radio signals that the satellites had allegedly been transmitting. To save power, he explained, the radio was turned on only over North Korea.

And then I knew for sure he was lying. Satellite signals aren't directed straight down at the land below, they are broadcast in all directions. Radio amateurs can pick them up via line-of-sight for thousands of kilometers in all directions — and via atmospheric ducting, sporadically all over the world.

The explanation was fiction. It was contrary to 50 years of experience with satellite signals.

Known unknowns
So the new launch has a twin set of challenges, one technological and one political.

Can they show they have fixed the original problem that crashed the launch in April? Can they provide unambiguous and credible evidence that there is no secret military test on this flight?

So far, I've seen no indication to give me any confidence that they have the proper attitudes to succeed at either goal.

Dispatches from April's North Korea rocket tour:

NBC News space analyst James Oberg spent 22 years at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer. He is the author of several books on space history and space policy, including "Star-Crossed Orbits: Inside the U.S.-Russian Space Alliance."

Video: South Korea searches for rocket debris

  1. Closed captioning of: South Korea searches for rocket debris

    >>> south korean warships today are searching the yellow sea from debris from north korea 's failed rocket lawn. . in north korea today there were celebrations honoring the 100th birthday of the country's founder. more from richard engel live for us in north korea . slight delay, richard, good morning to you or rather evening where you're at. the worry is a nuclear test to try to recoup that failure of the failed rocket launch here. another oldie, if you will, from the north korean playbook. what's expected, how have north koreans reacted to what has happened as well?

    >> reporter: well, they are reacting, richard, and it is evening here with a show of patriotism. they are doubling down on this cult of personality . first off, on the ships, those south korean warships are scouring the waters. they are looking, in particular, for pieces that could reveal intelligence. in particular, the engines and the guidance system could provide a great deal of intelligence. technically, those pieces of the rocket still belong to north korea , but it's highly up likely that south korea would hand them over, especially considering that south korea considers this rocket launch a violation of international standards , a violation of u.n. security council resolution. so unlikely that if the pieces were found they would be given back to this country. the celebrations are continuing. yesterday the country unveiled two enormous statues, two colossal-sized of kim, 50 to 60 feet tall bronze statues of the country's two past leaders. they were several hundred thousand people in attendance at that ceremony. today another ceremony, another show of patriotism and faith in this system. perhaps 40,000 to 60,000 military officers will gather in a main soccer stadium here in pyongyang to show their allegiance, their love, their devotion for kim jong -un. the country' new leader. he attended the ceremony, he didn't say anything, but received an enormous amount of applause. this is part of north korea 's reaction trying to show strength, trying to show it is undaunted by the rocket launch 's failure. the concern is it may take a more concrete step, not just these shows of patriotism by trying to launch a nuclear weapon , nuclear bomb , underground to send a message to a potential adversary that this country remains strong despite its inability to launch a satellite into orbit.

    >> richard engel , thank you so much. live from pyong yang in north korea for us this morning.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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