North Korea’s Chollima-1 rocket fails to reach orbit, debris recovered by South Korea

by William Graham

North Korea has carried out its first satellite launch attempt in seven years, with a Chollima-1 rocket failing to deploy the Malligyong-1 satellite on Wednesday. After lifting off from the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground at 6:27 AM Pyongyang Time (21:27 UTC on Tuesday), the rocket appears to have suffered an anomaly around the time of first stage separation and did not achieve its planned orbit. Debris from the launch fell into the sea off the coast of South Korea, where it has been recovered by South Korean forces.

Announced as North Korea’s first reconnaissance satellite, Malligyong-1 was believed to have been an electro-optical imaging spacecraft, equipped with cameras to capture images of the Earth which it would have transmitted back to its operators for analysis. The satellite’s name translates literally as “great mirror” but can also be translated as “telescope”.

North Korea has been developing satellite reconnaissance capabilities for some time, with hardware being test-flown during missile tests last year. In March 2022 the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, toured the Sohae launch site. His visit saw him inspect the modernization and expansion of the facility to support larger rockets and future missions, which would include military reconnaissance satellites.

Aerial view of North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launching Station, taken on May 31. (Credit: Planet Labs)

The country’s space activities are managed by the National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA), which has been responsible for developing the technology that went into Malligyong-1, as well as launching the satellite and operating it, had the launch been successful. Last December, following further testing, the agency stated it would be ready to launch North Korea’s first reconnaissance satellite by April.

NADA claimed that Malligyong-1 would be able to image the Earth at resolutions of up to 20 meters using a monochromatic camera and that the spacecraft would also be equipped with systems for multispectral imaging and video transmission. The satellite was to have been operated in an orbit approximately 500 kilometers above the planet.

Hazard areas announced ahead of the launch indicated that a high-inclination orbit was being targeted, with the rocket initially flying south-south-west from its launch site before making a dog-leg maneuver to the south-south-east after the separation of the first stage. This trajectory would have resulted in an orbital inclination of about 76 degrees – although a further dogleg during third-stage flight could have been planned to increase the inclination for a more polar or sun-synchronous orbit.

Following liftoff, the rocket appears to have failed at around the time of first-stage separation and second-stage ignition, so subsequent flight events were not achieved. Debris fell into the Yellow Sea between South Korea and China, with several large pieces being recovered by the South Korean military.

The Malligyong-1 satellite (right) seen during Kim Jong Un’s visit to inspect launch preparations (Credit: KCNA)

Wednesday’s launch marked the first time North Korea used a Chollima-1 rocket for an orbital launch attempt, and was likely the rocket’s maiden flight – although given the secrecy surrounding North Korea’s rocketry programmes it is difficult to be certain of this. The rocket is named after a winged horse from Chinese mythology which is a significant symbol in North Korea representing progress and innovation.

Very few details about Chollima-1 have been made public, although hazard areas published ahead of the launch indicated that it had at least three stages and, speaking after the launch, a spokesperson for NADA referred to a “new-type engine system” on the second stage.

In recent years North Korea has developed several new types of long-missile, including the long-range Hwasong-15 and 17, and the solid-fuelled Hwasong-18. As no images of Wednesday’s launch have been published, it is not possible to determine whether one of these forms the basis of the Chollima-1, whether it is derived from one of North Korea’s older rockets, or if it is a new rocket developed as a dedicated launch vehicle.

As well as mentioning a “new-type” engine, NADA referred to its fuel having “unstable” characteristics and its reliability not being proven, in the context of explaining the failure of the launch. This may be a mistranslation and likely means that the technology is less mature, but this suggests that at least on the second stage, the rocket might have pivoted away from the hypergolic propellants used on North Korea’s previous rockets.

Debris from the launch has been recovered from the sea by the South Korean military, who will be studying them along with their allies to assess the state of North Korea’s rocket and missile technology. Some details of such assessments from previous launches have been made public, so further insights into North Korea’s new rocket may be forthcoming as this work proceeds.

Debris from the Chollima-1 rocket recovered by South Korea (credit: Republic of Korea Armed Forces)

Sunday’s launch comes three months short of the 25th anniversary of North Korea’s first attempt to launch a satellite. This came in August 1998, when a Paektusan-1 rocket – often known in the West as Taepodong-1 – was used to loft Kwangmyŏngsŏng-1. This failed to reach orbit due to a third stage malfunction, however, the North Korean Government initially claimed that it had been successful and was orbiting the Earth broadcasting songs celebrating the country’s then-ruler Kim Jong Il and his father and predecessor Kim Il Sung.

The Paektusan 1 was derived from the Hwasong-7 missile, itself based on the Soviet R-17 Elbrus – part of a family of missiles known in the West as “scuds.” The 1998 launch is its only known satellite launch attempt, with the larger Unha series of rockets being used for all subsequent launches prior to Wednesday’s mission.

Unha may have first flown in July 2006. As part of a series of missile tests, North Korea debuted a new rocket which became known as Taepodong-2 in the West. While generally held to have been a test of a new missile – which would likely be the basis for the Unha – it has also been speculated that this might have been another attempt to launch a satellite. In either case, the launch was unsuccessful with the vehicle exploding about 42 seconds after liftoff.

The first acknowledged launch of Unha, using a version of the rocket named Unha-2, took place in April 2009, with Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 aboard. This was also claimed to have been successful, however, both US and Russian observers confirmed that the satellite had failed to enter orbit. A subsequent launch took place in April 2012 with Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 on an Unha-3 rocket, which failed about 90 seconds after liftoff. For the first time, North Korea acknowledged that the launch had been unsuccessful.

In December 2012, Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 ho 2-hogi, or Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2, was successfully placed into orbit by another Unha-3 rocket, making North Korea the tenth country to have developed its own indigenous orbital launch capability. The satellite was observed to be tumbling in orbit, and it is not clear whether it completed any of its planned mission objectives aside from reaching orbit.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the Sohae launch site in March 2022 (Credit: KCNA)

North Korea’s next launch, and the most recent before Wednesday’s attempt, was made in February 2016 with the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-4 satellite. This also used an Unha-3 rocket, although North Korean media referred to the rocket as Kwangmyŏngsŏng instead. This reached orbit, although some Western analysts have speculated that the rocket may have underperformed and delivered the satellite to a lower orbit than initially planned. Kwangmyŏngsŏng-4 was initially reported to have been tumbling, however, it soon appeared to have been brought under control.

Due to the country’s reclusive nature, nuclear weapons programs, and strained relations with the West, North Korea’s satellite launches have been controversial on the world stage. While the North Korean government bills its rocketry and satellite projects as its development of an indigenous spacefaring capability for peaceful exploration and exploitation of the cosmos, other countries view it as a way to test and refine ballistic missile technology that could be used to deliver nuclear weapons.

Past launches have also overflown neighboring countries, prompting concern from their governments and citizens. The 1998 and 2009 launch attempts both took place from Tonghae on North Korea’s eastern coast, flying in an easterly direction and passing over Japan during the early stages of flight. Subsequent launches have taken place from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, close to the Chinese border on North Korea’s western coast, from where the rockets can fly in a more southerly direction over the Yellow Sea and into near-polar orbits.

Although the timing is almost certainly a coincidence, Wednesday’s launch is the second from the Korean peninsula in less than a week, with South Korea launching one of its Nuri rockets last Thursday.

Following the failure of the Malligyong-1 launch, North Korea has stated its intent to attempt another launch as soon as possible, once an investigation has been completed and any necessary tests completed.

(Lead image: Debris from Wednesday’s launch floating in the sea during recovery operations by South Korean forces. Credit: Republic of Korea Armed Forces)

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