North Korea Launches First Satellite into Orbit

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North Korea joined the growing list of nations with a demonstrated space launch capability by placing what the state-controlled Korean Central News Agency characterized as an Earth observation satellite into low Earth orbit Dec. 11.

North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) confirmed that the three-stage Unha-3 rocket succeeded in placing a satellite into orbit. In a statement, NORAD said U.S. missile warning systems tracked the rocket, which was launched on a southward trajectory.

The rocket’s first and second stages dropped harmlessly into the Yellow and Philippine seas, respectively, NORAD said. “At no time was the missile or resultant debris a threat to North America,” the statement said.

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As of Dec. 14, the U.S. space surveillance network was tracking the satellite and at least three pieces of the rocket in orbit, according to Space-Track.org, which publishes NORAD data on orbital objects. The satellite, designated KMS 3-2, was in a near-polar elliptical orbit inclined at 97.4 degrees relative to the equator, with an apogee of 582 kilometers and a perigee of 498 kilometers.

U.S. government officials declined Dec. 13 to comment on the operational status of the satellite.

A similar launch attempt by North Korea failed in April when the rocket broke apart shortly after liftoff and fell into the sea about 165 kilometers west of Seoul, South Korea.