By Adam Levine
With North Korea's anticipated launch of a satellite-topped long-range missile set for within the next two weeks, more activity should soon be evident from the satellite images being collected from the skies above.
The expected launch is meant to commemorate what would have been the the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung , who founded communist North Korea and is grandfather to current leader, Kim Jong Un. The regime informed the International Maritime Organisation that the satellite will be launched between April 12 and April 16.
Some activity has already been seen in commercial imagery made available of the Tongchang-dong Space Launch Center, although the latest image showed no sign of the actual rocket.
A March 28th image from DigitalGlobe (see image above) showed equipment near the mobile launch pad and activity near the fuel and oxidation buildings nearby, according to Digital Globe's senior analyst, Joseph Bermudez. The crane atop the erection tower had been swung wide and the work platforms folded back. Additionally, there was evidence of grass being cleared from near the launch pad, according to a image analysis by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University and posted on the institute's blog, 38North.org.
Activity should pick up and very soon the first stages of the rocket should be loaded onto the mobile launch pad, according to the Johns Hopkins experts, who looked back at the previous two launch attempts and posted on their blog (see 2009 satellite images on their blog here) .
Two weeks before April 2009 launch, there was little evidence of activity. But 12 days before the April 5 launch, the pace began to pick up both at the launch pad and the nearby horizontal assembly building (HAB). This time around, the Korean rocket is reportedly in the HAB already, having been shipped in parts by rail from the missile plant north of the capital city of Pyongyang.
In 2009, the first two stages of the rocket were seen already stacked on the mobile launch pad and the third stage was in the process of being put on pad 10 days before the actual launch, according to the satellite image analysis on 38North.org. The next day (9 days before launch) the third stage of the Unha-2 long-range missile and related equipment were still on the pad.
One week before the 2009 launch, images showed what 38North.org calls "a full dress rehearsal" in progress, with the rocket fully visible and "VIP vehicles are seen on the pad and later at the control center."
By three days before the launch, the rocket and tower have been covered by canvas to protect the missile, and some evidence of fueling activity is seen taking place.
On launch day, April 5, 2009, VIP vehicles could again be seen on the launch pad just 25 minutes before launch, and the Unha-2 was fully visible again. The VIP vehicles were then seen in images at the control center, according to 38North.org's image analysis. Later, DigitalGlobe's satellite caught the Unha-2 in flight.
It was later learned that the new leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, attended the launch with his father, Kim Jong Il.
Based on the previous launch, here is how 38North.org anticipates the current launch to roll out:
March 29-30: Transport and stacking of the first stage to launch pad
March 21-April 1: Transport and stacking of 2nd stage
April 2-3: 3rd stage stacked
April 4-5: Unha-3 checked and satellite loaded onto the rocket
April 6-7: Launch dress rehearsal
April 11: Rocket fueled and final check on rocket
April 12-16: Launch window