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.
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.