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North Korea puts satellite in orbit, prompting outrage

Posted: December 12, 2012

North Korea launched a three-stage rocket Wednesday and appeared to deploy an object in orbit, according to the U.S. military, catapulting the isolated nation into an elite club and raising international concerns over the country's long-range missile strike capabilities.

Animation of the planned trajectory of North Korea's failed launch attempt in April. Wednesday's successful launch followed a similar path. Credit: Analytical Graphics Inc.

South Korea quickly issued a statement strongly condemning the launch, and the White House called the launch a "highly provocative act that threatens regional security."

"North American Aerospace Defense Command officials acknowledged today that U.S. missile warning systems detected and tracked the launch of a North Korean missile at 7:49 p.m. EST (0049 GMT; 9:49 a.m. local time Wednesday)," said a statement released by NORAD, a military command which tracks air and space traffic.

NORAD said it tracked the missile on a southerly azimuth. The 100-foot-tall rocket blasted off from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, a remote facility northwest of Pyongyang and about 35 miles from the Chinese border city of Dandong.

"Initial indications are that the first stage fell into the Yellow Sea," NORAD said. "The second stage was assessed to fall into the Philippine Sea. Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit. At no time was the missile or the resultant debris a threat to North America."

North Korea's state news organization said the Kwangmyongsong 3 satellite entered its "preset" orbit following launch.

China, Pyongyang's closest ally, said North Korea is entitled to the peaceful exploration of outer space. But a commentary published Wednesday by Xinhua, the Chinese government's official news agency, said Pyongyang should abide by U.S. Security Council resolutions demanding North Korea abandon its ballistic missile program.

Japan called for an emergency Security Council meeting in New York on Wednesday.

The Russian Foreign Ministry urged North Korea to reconsider the rocket launch in the days after Pyongyang announced the planned launch Dec. 1.

North Korea's neighbors, along with the United States, fear the technology tested in space launches could be applied to military ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads.

The launch could also yield internal legitimacy to the new North Korean regime led by Kim Jong-un, son of Kim Jong-il, who died in December 2011.

U.S. military assets tracked three objects in orbit from Wednesday's launch. The items are likely the Kwangmyongsong 3 satellite, the Unha booster's third stage, and a payload attach fitting, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and an expert who tracks space activities.

According to McDowell, one of the objects was in an orbit between 307 miles and 365 miles above Earth, with an inclination of 97.4 degrees.

The successful launch was the fourth time North Korea said it tried to put a satellite into orbit. Rocket launches in 1998 and 2009 fell short of orbit, according to international monitors, but North Korea claimed the missions were successful.

An Unha 3 rocket launch in April crashed moments after liftoff, and North Korea acknowledged that failure.

Wednesday's satellite launch carried a second version of the Kwangmyongsong 3 satellite, which North Korea says is outfitted with communications gear. Amateur satellite trackers are listening for radio signals from the North Korean spacecraft.

North Korea joins a small group of countries with the ability to build and launch their own satellites into orbit.

The former Soviet Union launched the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in October 1957. The United States followed with the successful launch of Explorer 1 in January 1958.

France, Japan, China, the United Kingdom, India and Israel later flew their own space launchers.

Iran joined the space launch club in 2009 and was the newest member before North Korea's historic launch.