Sunday 19 October 2014

Imaging the North Korean Kwangmyŏngsŏng (KMS) 3-2 satellite

Yesterday evening was initially clear. Using the SamYang 1.4/85 mm lens, I imaged an object that has been on my "to do"-list for a (too) long time: the North Korean satellite Kwangmyŏngsŏng 3-2 (KMS 3-2, 2012-072A), visible as a very faint trail on this image:

click image to enlarge

Kwangmyŏngsŏng ("Brilliant Star") 3-2 was launched under much international tension almost two years ago, on 12 December 2012, from Songhae. It is the first and so far only successful North Korean launch.

On 8 Dec 2012, just days before they launched KMS 3-2, the N-Koreans actually visited this weblog, looking for information on US IMINT satellites (specifically Lacrosse and Keyhole). As I wrote at that time, very few North-Koreans have access to the internet. Those who do, have close ties to Kim Jung Un or are among the top military. So that visit was surprising.

The reason became quickly apparent. Post-launch, I made an analysis of the KMS 3-2 launch time, showing that the North Koreans picked a carefully determined one-hour gap in Western space-based IMINT coverage to launch their satellite.

Later that month, on 21, 22 and 23 Dec 2012, the North-Koreans popped up again, visiting my launch time analysis post, and searching for TLE's of their own satellite! (one would expect that the Chinese could provide these to them, so this was surprising again). The visits came from another IP than the Dec 8 visits.

Another visit to this blog was made two weeks later, on 8 Jan 2013, from the same IP as the Dec 8 visit (but another computer perhaps, as the Dec 8 visitor used Windows Xp, but this visitor Windows 7). This time the subject of the visit was my analysis of the tumbling behaviour of the satellite which I made late December 2012 using Greg Roberts' 20 Dec 2012 footage of a KMS 3-2 pass (as it was in the dead of the Northern hemisphere winter, it was not possible for me to image the satellite myself at that time). They might have been interested in my analysis in order to assess the character of this tumbling, which was probably not intended and might indicate a failure to stabilize the satellite after orbit insertion.

Then it was quiet for 1.5 years. But last summer, I got another surprise N-Korean visit to this blog. This happened on June 9, and it was this visit which reminded me that it might be fun to try to image the satellite this summer. For various reasons, I only succeeded last night.

The June 9 N-Korean visitor visited posts about the SDS and SBSS satellite systems. The first (SDS, Satellite Data System) is a system of geostationary US military data relay satellites which (a.o.) relays IMINT data from other satellites to the US. The other (SBSS, the Space Based Space Surveillance system) is a satellite in Low Earth Orbit for detecting and tracking objects orbiting in space (i.e., other satellites - like those of North Korea).

This visit came while upgrade activities of the launch installations at Sohae were documented by the 38 North blog. The upgrade seems to point to Sohae being readied to facilitate a heavier launch vehicle. How a North-Korean interest in SBSS and SDS would fit into this picture, is however not entirely clear, apart from that it could indicate that they might aim to avoid SBSS tracking of their payloads during the initial orbit insertion.