The North Korean satellite command center, during an open
house for foreign journalists
North Korea has drawn international ire in the last few months with its plan to launch a satellite—called Bright Shining Star—that the United States and its allies perceived as a veiled attempt to test potential long-range weapons. The US even canceled food relief worth about $200 million dollars to feed the country’s starving population, when the government announced that the launch would go forward as part of the festivities surrounding new leader Kim Jong-un’s rise to power.
The launch attempt today, however, failed, with the satellite breaking up and falling into the Yellow Sea. The satellite, which South Korean estimates say cost the country $450 million to build, reached barely a third of the height required to make orbit.
This does not bode well for the scientists involved in the project, North Korea expert Markus Noland noted on his blog (via NYT):
“The North Koreans have managed in a single stroke to not only defy the U.N. Security Council, the United States and even their patron China, but also demonstrate ineptitude,” Mr. Noland said. “Some of the scientists and engineers associated with the launch are likely facing death or the gulag as scapegoats for this embarrassment.”
A bold and sophisticated cyber attack that began last weekend took down government Web sites in both the United States and South Korea, and South Korean officials have blamed their neighbors to the north for the onslaught. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, the nation’s main spy agency, told a group of South Korean lawmakers Wednesday it believes that North Korea or North Korean sympathizers in the South “were behind” the attacks [AP].
The attack, which began on July 4, brought down the Web sites of U.S. agencies like the Treasury Department, the Secret Service, and the Federal Trade Commission, with some of the problems lasting for days. In South Korea, an attack that began Tuesday crashed sites belonging to the presidential Blue House and the Defense Ministry, among others. In both countries, the cyber strike also targeted a few large commercial Web sites. “This is not a simple attack by an individual hacker, but appears to be thoroughly planned and executed by a specific organization or on a state level,” the National Intelligence Service said in a statement [The New York Times].
When North Korea announced on May 25th that it had conducted its second underground test of a nuclear weapon, scientists weren’t surprised: They had already picked up seismic readings indicating a subterranean explosion. While seismologists say the readings carried subtle signatures that strongly suggest that the blast was caused by a nuclear device rather than conventional explosives, scientists were still waiting for one more piece of evidence–detecting radionuclide evidence in the form of radioactive gas is the “smoking gun”. And the big news here is that they have not found that signal [BBC Two].
Unlike other nuclear debris, xenon, an unreactive noble gas, can filter out through fissures in the rock after an underground test. Once in the atmosphere, plumes of xenon isotopes can be blown for thousands of miles. In 2006, for example, a [nuclear monitoring] station in Yellowknife, Canada, detected traces of xenon-133 two weeks after North Korea’s first test [Nature News]. But monitoring stations set up by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) have failed to detect any trace of xenon following the May blast, and now it may be too late. Researcher Lassina Zerbo of the CTBTO notes that these xenon isotopes rapidly decay in the atmosphere. This long after the blast, he says, “there is very little chance that we will pick up anything” [Nature News].
Even before North Korea announced that it had conducted its second underground test of a nuclear weapon, scientists around the world were putting together a picture of what had happened. With a combination of seismic and radiation monitoring, scientists expect to soon have a working idea of how far the rogue nation’s nuclear program has advanced.
At 9:55 a.m. local time on Monday, two seismic monitoring stations on the Japanese coast detected seismic waves coming from the area where North Korea last tested a nuclear weapon, in 2006. The region has little natural seismic activity, and experts noted that the waves didn’t match patterns produced by earthquakes. Movements along natural fault lines transmit most of their energy through ‘s-waves’, whereas explosions at a single point release a greater proportion through compressional p-waves. In the waves detected in Japan, the s-wave component was just one-fifth that of the p-wave. “You can’t say it’s impossible for a natural earthquake, but it would be very rare,” says Gen Aoki of the Japan Meteorological Agency in Tokyo [Nature News].
Experts note that the network of blast detectors intended for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which has not yet come into force, seems to have perfectly identified the explosion as a nuclear test, despite its small size. [In 1998, the U.S. Senate] rejected the CTBT partly over fears that countries could cheat, by claiming small covert weapons tests were earthquakes. The detection of the North Korean test raises hopes that the Senate will no longer be able to object [New Scientist]. But scientists had to do more than simply show that an underground explosion had sent ripples through the earth; they also have to determine how big the bomb was, and prove that the tremors weren’t caused by conventional explosives.
While the international community reacted with outrage to North Korea’s rocket launch on Sunday, calling it a provocative test of a long-range missile, North Korea’s isolated leader, Kim Jong-Il, continued to insist that the launch was an entirely peaceful enterprise. Kim has repeatedly said that the rocket was intended to send an experimental satellite into orbit, and said it would mark the beginning of his country’s space program. There was also disagreement on the basic question of whether anything reached orbit. Officials from the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) say the rocket’s payload splashed down into the Pacific Ocean, while North Korea claims that the satellite is already broadcasting from space.
The North Korean news agency reports that Kim is pleased and proud. “Expressing great satisfaction over the fact that scientists and technicians of the [North Korea] successfully launched the satellite with their own wisdom and technology, he highly appreciated their feats and extended thanks to them,” the agency said…. According to North Korea’s official media, not only did the country successfully send a communications satellite into orbit, but “it is sending to the Earth the melodies of the immortal revolutionary paeans ‘Song of General Kim Il Sung’ and ‘Song of General Kim Jong Il'” [CNN].
The North Korean government announced yesterday that it’s preparing to launch a communications satellite on a North Korean-made rocket, a move that has been widely interpreted as a test firing of its long-range missile. South Korea and the United States say any test-firing, whether a purported satellite launch or a missile test, would be provocative since the technology is dual-use, and would breach UN resolutions [AFP]. Experts say that the long-range Taepodong-2 rocket has a range of about 4,200 miles, which gives it the theoretical capacity to hit Alaska. But in the only previous test of the long-range rocket, in 2006, it exploded 40 seconds after launch.
North Korea has insisted that the launch is a purely scientific endeavor. “The preparations for launching an experimental communications satellite … are now making brisk headway,” North Korea’s KCNA news agency said. “When this satellite launch proves successful, the nation’s space science and technology will make another giant stride forward in building an economic power” [Reuters]. South Korean news sources have reported that the rocket has not yet been moved to the launch pad, but that there is a great deal of activity around the site.