North Korea’s controversial rocket launch failed early Friday within 90 seconds of taking off.
It was an embarrassing set-back for North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong-un. But with all eyes on the reclusive country and the presence of foreign media, officials were forced to acknowledge the failure with a brief statement on state TV.
James Oberg, NBC News’s space expert and a 22-year NASA veteran, answered reader questions about the failed launch from Pyongyang earlier today.
The five-day window for the launch of a North Korean rocket mounted with an observation satellite opened Thursday as the rest of the world waits to see if Pyongyang will defy international warnings and go ahead with the controversial mission.
NBC News is in North Korea to observe the launch with space expert James Oberg. With a 22-year career as a space engineer in support of NASA’s spaceflight operations, Oberg has the experience and technical expertise to determine the veracity of North Korea’s claims about this mission.
Oberg answered reader questions for an hour earlier today. The questions and answers were extremely engaging and informative. Click below to replay the chat.
Read some of Oberg's reports on North Korea's space program:
This picture from DigitalGlobe's QuickBird satellite shows the launch pad at the Tongchang-ri Launch Facility in North Korea, as seen on April 9. Three dark-colored support vehicles are lined up on the launch apron. The rail-mounted mobile launch platform is toward the bottom of the pad, with an exhaust deflector that's designed to deal with the hot blast of launch.
While North Korean officials were showing off their preparations for a controversial satellite launch, DigitalGlobe's Quickbird satellite was snapping high-resolution pictures of the scene from far above. The images reveal how far the North Koreans have come — and how much can be gleaned about their intentions from orbit.
DigitalGlobe is a commercial satellite imagery provider, and QuickBird can provide pictures at a resolution of a half-meter (20 inches) per pixel. But you can bet that U.S. intelligence agencies are getting significantly better views of the Tongchang-ri Launch Center from their satellites.
North Korea is due to launch its Unha-3 ("Milky Way 3") rocket anytime between now and April 16, ostensibly to send an Earth-observing satellite known as Kwangmyongsong-3 ("Bright Shining Star 3") into a pole-to-pole orbit. The United States and its allies worry that the launch is really more of a test of North Korea's capability to launch intercontinental missiles as weapons.
International journalists, including a team from NBC News, were invited to visit the secretive hard-line communist nation this week for an on-the-ground assessment of the space mission. NBC News space analyst James Oberg said that in its current configuration, the booster is "not a military missile ... but it's darn close."
"This rocket is not a weapon, but it's maybe 98 percent of one," Oberg said. "It can be converted all too easily and all too frighteningly into a weapon, and they don't need it."
AmericaSpace's Craig Covault said the Tongchang-ri facility is clearly built to handle rockets much larger than the Unha-3. He quoted U.S. and South Korean intelligence analysts as saying they believe the complex could be used for tests of North Korea's "Satan" long-range ballistic missile, as well as a North Korean-Iranian booster with up to six engines clustered in the first stage.
"Iran and possibly North Korea plan to use the large new space launch booster to send Iranian and North Korean astronauts into space," Covault wrote. He lays out a Korean-Iranian missile development program that sounds positively scary.
North Korea might have been hoping that this week's visit by journalists would put Washington's fears to rest. But based on the feedback so far, it doesn't sound as if that'll be the case.
Here's tonight's report from NBC News' Richard Engel in Pyongyang:
A North Korean satellite is poised to launch to commemorate the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung, but there are some doubts over whether it will ever go into orbit. NBC's Richard Engel reports.
... Here's a computer-generated animation of the expected launch from Analytical Graphics Inc.:
This animation from AGI shows the launch and possible path of the Unha-3 long-range rocket, aimed at putting the Kwangmongsong-3 satellite into orbit. Video courtesy of Analytical Graphics Inc. (AGI). Visit http://agi.com/northkorea for additional resources.
... And here are more satellite pictures from DigitalGlobe:
An orbital view from DigitalGlobe's QuickBird satellite shows North Korea's Tongchang-ri Launch Facility from an altitude of 420 miles (680 kilometers).
James Oberg / msnbc.com (left) / DigitalGlobe (right)
The map of the Tongchang-ri Launch Facility that was displayed by the North Koreans during a news briefing (left) is compared with the overhead view from DigitalGlobe (right). The orientation of the satellite picture has been rotated to approximate the orientation of the map.
This satellite view shows the horizontal processing building at the Tongchang-ri Launch Facility in North Korea, with a support vehicle parked in the dark-colored parking lot below the building.
This DigitalGlobe satellite image, taken from orbit on April 9, shows the Tongchang-ri Launch Facility in North Korea. The structure in the lower part of the frame is known as the high-bay processing building, and the structures in the upper pat are housing facilities. VIP housing is at leff.
This picture of Earth at night is based on 1994-1995 satellite data from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Operational Linescan System, which maps the location of permanent lights on the planet. The borders of North Korea are outlined in white, with Japan off to the right, China to the left and South Korea below.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
The death of North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, serves as a reminder that the hard-line communist country has long been in the dark — literally. A white border highlights the dark spot known as North Korea in this visualization of our planet's city lights.
This iconic "Earth at Night" picture is based on data gathered by military satellites in 1994-1995, just after Kim inherited power from his late father, Kim Il Sung. The darkness shows how much North Korea has lagged behind its neighbors — South Korea, China, Russia and Japan — in electrification and industrial development. Updates of the data sets show that there's been no change in North Korea's city-light situation between 1992 and 2009. Check out NOAA's "Science on a Sphere" webpage for more about the "Earth at Night" satellite data project.
A different kind of satellite project shows where North Korea has made progress during the dark age of Kim Jong Il: For years, the Institute for Science and International Security has been using satellite imagery to document the state of North Korea's nuclear program. Pictures acquired from orbit over the past couple of years show new construction at the country's Yongbyon nuclear center.
Here's a recent picture of the Yongbyon site from DigitalGlobe, a commercial satellite imaging venture. ISIS says the blue roofs on a gas centrifuge plant and an adjoining building appear to be part of increased construction activity:
This high-resolution satellite image from DigitalGlobe, acquired on Nov. 4, 2010, shows new construction at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear site. The building with a deep blue roof is thought to be a gas centrifuge plant.
These satellite views of North Korea serve as today's offering from the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, which presents views of Earth from space every day from now until Christmas. Catch up on these previous entries from the calendar:
Correction for 11 p.m. ET: I mistakenly referred to "Science on a Sphere" as being provided by NASA, when it's actually provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Sorry about that! Must have been because the first time I saw the "Science on a Sphere" display was at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.