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The Military Hardware Science

What Debris From North Korea's Rocket Launch Shows 223

Lasrick writes "David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists analyzes the debris from North Korea's December 11th Unha-3 launch. From the article: 'According to press reports, traces on the inner walls of the tank show that the first-stage oxidizer is a form of nitric acid called "red-fuming nitric acid," which is the standard oxidizer used in Scud-type missiles. There had been some speculation that this stage might instead use a more advanced fuel with nitrogen tetroxide (NTO) as the oxidizer. Since the Nodong engines believed to power the first stage are scaled-up Scud engines, the use of RNFA is not a surprise. There have also been claims that the stage uses a more advanced fuel called UDMH, but it appears instead to be the kerosene-based fuel used in Scuds. In his recent RAND study, Markus Schiller noted that a test Iraq performed using UDMH in a Scud engine gave poor performance, and that burning UDMH gives a transparent flame. The North Korean video of the launch instead shows an orange flame characteristic of Scud fuels (Figure 3 is an image from 12:44 into the video). These findings confirm that the stage is still Scud-level technology.'"
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What Debris From North Korea's Rocket Launch Shows

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  • by O('_')O_Bush ( 1162487 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @09:23AM (#42403099)
    I mean, it was the test of an MRBM/IRBM platform, it really is no surprise that it is only a technological hair away from its SRBM/MRBM ancestor...
  • I wonder how much longer this festering little hell hole will last.

    • Re:North Korea (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 27, 2012 @09:30AM (#42403135)

      They now have an ICBM. Now they just need to miniaturize their nukes to fit on it. Next they will need submarines with nuclear missiles to protect them against a first strike. Then the only thing that will take them down will be internal strife. Considering that they are a batshit crazy country, China will prop them up as long as possible. So actually this hellhole might last pretty far into the future.

      The secret to North Korea's longevity is that nobody wants to go in an clean up their mess. This is ten times more important when they have a reasonable delivery system for their nuclear weapons.

      • by Hentes ( 2461350 )

        I'm pretty sure America would consider going in if China weren't actively protecting them.

        • The sad thing is, SK would have already wiped them out if America wasn't protecting NK by maintaining a huge military presence in SK.

          • Re:North Korea (Score:5, Interesting)

            by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @12:43PM (#42404401)

            No fucking way. The DPRK has artillerie that can hit Seoul. Nor do the leaders of South Korea really relish the thought of paying the huge costs of unification and bringing the North up to the standards of the South. Look at the fall of the DDR and the cost to Germany during unification. This would be worse, far worse.

          • by gtall ( 79522 )

            Nope, China is the one supporting N. Korea, they don't want half of N. Korea fleeing to N. China. South Korea knows a bunch of born fuck ups when they see them, they want no part of N. Korea. The U.S. is merely a trip wire to prevent the batshit crazies up North from coming down South...after destroying it first with artillery and guided missiles. They then send their 1 million man starving army South so they get some proper meals before they shit in that nest as well.

      • Re:North Korea (Score:5, Interesting)

        by CptPicard ( 680154 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @10:45AM (#42403601)

        I'm not all that certain that China will unconditionally prop them up. They already have quite a problem on their hands with NK that they are no longer ideologically interested, and that China's real interests in international trade and so on are just hurt by any overt support of NK.

        What China is interested in is that their border region with NK doesn't get flooded with refugees if NK suddenly implodes. So I'd say that China might be our best bet at encouraging internal changes inside NK.

        • Re:North Korea (Score:4, Informative)

          by ValentineMSmith ( 670074 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @12:04PM (#42404171)

          China wasn't really that interested in saving Kim Il Sung's hiney back in the '50's. China got involved in the Korean war because 1) they felt they needed a buffer zone between a US-sponsored South Korea and their borders, and, perhaps more to the point, 2) Mao Zedong didn't just hold grudges. He cherished them, and he was still nine kinds of annoyed at the US for backing Chiang Kai-shek during the Chinese Civil War. Yeah, Koreans fought during the Chinese Civil War, but Mao was never one to be grateful enough for someone to do something against his interest in thanks.

        • by gtall ( 79522 )

          Yeah, name one country upset enough at China to hurt it economically over their support of N. Korea? And any change in N. Korea means the regime there must go bye-bye...and that would open the flood gates where most of the N. Koreans decide they'd like to live in China.

          China is stuck. They have to support that little sawed off runt and his generals and their army.

          No one will help the N. Korean people because no one cares enough to risk a hot war to lance that boil. It's easier watching them starve and die f

          • My claim here is that the calculus is such that as NK just doesn't matter ideologically anymore to China, so they have no motivation to "support" it in any meaningful way, regional stability concerns aside. International diplomacy is often a matter of trading concerns, so if I were China I would just hope the NK crazies went away and I didn't have to "take their side" when I have much more important issues to defend (trade, Taiwan...)

      • They don't need to miniaturize nukes. A conventional warhead on an ICBM will do quite a bit of damage. Manufacture them in sufficient quantities and it's practically the same as a nuke. Sure, cities might not be wiped off the face of the map in one strike, but the damage will be significant.

        Their ultimate goal is not the U.S. but U.S. interests: South Korea and Japan. And if they hit Japan, nobody in Asia is going to be terribly vocal about the fact. The U.S. is making a lot of noise only because of this. T

  • by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @09:24AM (#42403107) Homepage

    It got us to the moon several times. Dont discount the "primitive" kerosene as a rocket fuel.

    • by Woek ( 161635 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @09:39AM (#42403169)

      Well technically H2/LOX got us to the moon, the RP1/LOX got us out of the atmosphere... And incidentally, using LOX is a lot less primitive than using RFNA.

    • Didn't you get the memo? A totally hostile regime armed with nukes and ICBM capabilities that we cannot attack because it holds Seoul hostage of its artillery must be mocked as often as possible in the media.

      Forget Iran, forget Syria. North Korea is a Damn Serious threat that will be very difficult to solve.
    • It got us to the moon several times. Dont discount the "primitive" kerosene as a rocket fuel.

      And don't discount it in the first stage just because UDMH is "better" as a fuel. Perhaps it is, for some values of "better", but it is also highly toxic, lethal even in small concentrations, and manipulating the amounts you need for a first stage is nobody's idea of "fun". Not to mention the exhausts containing unburned traces of it around the ramp after launch and potential defects during launch.

  • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) * on Thursday December 27, 2012 @09:27AM (#42403115)
    But does it really matter what "technology" it uses if it can launch a bomb across an ocean? I don't think the parameters for success include "spend X billion inventing a new technology". Just the fact that they have managed to scale it up where other countries decided not to implies some sort of innovation. It's either cheaper, or they figured out a way to do it cheaper.
    • by wvmarle ( 1070040 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @10:18AM (#42403397)

      It matters: because only with the right technology you can actually launch a bomb across the ocean. Getting to orbit pretty much implies you can do it of course, the getting there part at least, analysing the technology further will let you know how well the thing was made (gives ideas on reliability and controllability), how much was imported and how much was their own work, etc. Being able to build such a rocket all by themselves means a greater threat than if everything is imported - imports can be blocked.

      Also it gives an idea on how advanced their technology really is, which in turn gives an idea on their overall capabilities. If they build advanced rockets, they likely build advanced versions of other weapons too. The article mentioned they used a light-weight titanium alloy for the tank, instead of steel - showing they have access to that alloy.

      The fuels used are also interesting. They use RFNA for oxidiser which can be stored at room temperature, making it not only easier to use as fuel in a rocket, it also makes it suitable as fuel for a missile which has to sit ready to launch for a long period of time. This may mean they are developing dual-use technology, it may also mean that they don't have the technology to use the more effient cryogenic fuels and have to simplify the design.

      Analysing their technology can also indicate how well they can control their rockets - important for both space launches and dropping bombs on target. It seems they manage control pretty well considering they actually got an object in orbit, which is quite a feat. The obvious next step would of course be an object that stays in orbit.

      No matter what, analysing the debris can tell you a lot. And that's why they're fishing up those debris parts now.

    • well yea, a nuke coming at you after being launched from a trebuchet is much less dangerous then one coming at you from an ICBM.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        well yea, launching a nuke at you from a trebuchet is much more dangerous (to me) then launching one at you from an ICBM.

        • Anyone crazy enough to unleash nukes at this stage in the game is going to get nuked to oblivion, whether it's blowback from their hand-thrown nuke or launched from half of everyone else.

          • You are missing the point. A deliverable nuclear weapon is a very saleable thing. Somebody will pay big bucks to own one. That psychopath neighbor of yours, for instance.

            Scud class missile technology is all over the Middle East (for instance). An IRBM based on Scud engines (and more importantly fuel and support equipment) with a low megaton range nuclear warhead that has some reasonable probability of exploding that is for sale, few questions asked, would allow NK to punch well above it's weight in the

  • The Administration recently announced that America would focus their projection of power to the Asian-Pacific region. My guess is that the claims of a long range NK missile are either the allowance of idiotic intelligence assessments to further propaganda goals, or the outright fabrication of assessments for the same purpose.

    China will squash NK like a gnat if they threaten regional stability in any real sense, but the if the United States allows that to happen, it will be a blow to perceived US power in th

    • China will squash NK like a gnat if they threaten regional stability...

      No, China will use NK to destabilize the region in order to "re-stabilize" it in a configuration more to China's liking. Unfortunately for the world, there is no such stable configuration.

    • by Fuzzums ( 250400 )

      The false assumption that the US should have control the Asian-Pacific region is just as correct as the one that Russia, China or Japan should have control over the N-American region.

      • "Control" and "power" are not the same things. Really the most the US wants is leverage in developing situations in Asia. A lot of nations in East Asia are very interested in close-ish ties with the US as a counterbalance to Chinese influence/intimidation, and this has largely been successful in averting crises in the region and/or Chinese aggression in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Straight. (Though occasionally you'd have political players who didn't really get the dynamic like Chen Shui-bian who trie
        • by Fuzzums ( 250400 )

          That sounds a lot more reasonable compared to the "there has to be an open ended excuse for a strike or an invasion to avoid that possibility" I responded to :)

          • Except that deanklear was largely correct. Post-Vietnam War East Asian geopolitics have been largely about maintaining the status quo at any cost. China needs DPRK to stay afloat because otherwise they're virtually guaranteed to clean up the mess and lose their buffer (a lot of Western pundits don't realize that Korea as a buffer for China is not a Cold War phenomenon, it's been the case since at least Ming/Chosun relations and the Imjin War in the late 16th century). The US wants the Korean peninsula situa
  • These findings confirm that the stage is still Scud-level technology.

    The sub-text being that it's not that great a technology. They underestimate the fact that the rocket/missile can still inflict damage if the North Koreans decided to.

    • Not to mention carelessly adding to the space-junk in the atmosphere. Space needs to be co-ordinated on a global stage, not a country specific one IMHO.
      • Not to mention carelessly adding to the space-junk in the atmosphere.

        Which has the pesky habit of falling down.

      • Coordination of space on a global stage is a fantastic idea, except that you have countries like North Korea that don't give a damn what the rest of the world wants, and does what they're going to do anyway.

        See: countless UN Security Council resolutions telling North Korea to knock it off with the ballistic missile tests and nuclear bombs already.

  • by girlinatrainingbra ( 2738457 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @09:43AM (#42403187)
    I was wondering whether the analysis was just based on video frames (since they talked about the colors of the flames and such) in the "" article. The article [] itself says that the analysis is based upon four pieces of the first stage of the Unha-3 rocket recovered by South Korea. The author of the article, David Wright [], surmises that all four pieces came from the first stage because they "were found in the same area".
    The four parts found were:
    1 -- oxidizer tank (made of an aluminum-magnesium alloy)
    with a cool picture (fig 4) of the inside of the tank showing hoops and stringers supporting the wall
    2 -- two bottles that make the "turbo pumps" to maintain pressure in the oxidizer tank as the fuel flow continues during launch
    3 -- another part of the fuel tank (with the number "3" painted on the outside which is visible on the launch video)
    4 -- what appears to be a support ring from the first stage body
    There's also a comment at the end about using "room temperature fuels" such as RFNA (red fuming nitric acid) allowing the use of a simplified design as compared to using cryogenic fuels which require a more complex design. Someone wrote in pointing out that RFNA is also used in the Russian Kosmos 3M [] space launch vehicle which is also derived from a ballistic missile. In fact, even the fins and the profile of the Kosmos looks like the fins on and the profile of the North Korean launch rocket. Pretty cool analysis, and I like that the author puts really links to the sources of the pictures he has in the article.
  • by Quick Reply ( 688867 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @09:51AM (#42403215) Journal

    Just imagine all of the PR points you could win just by letting us space nerds in on what you're doing. We'll work most of it out anyway, but take us through all the technical gore. What you are doing seems like the closest thing to launching a fully fledged rocket from your backyard using nothing but spare parts lying around, so we can definitely relate with you here.

    • And there it gets tricky. The problem is that under international sanctions NK is not allowed to develop missile technology (and the key difference between a rocket and a missile boils down to the payload).

      It indeed would be interesting to see how far they really are, but I do suspect that they have not much really to brag about as in developed by themselves. They took existing designs, scaled them up (I wouldn't be surprised if that is with outside help), made some improvements, and tried them out. Some fa

  • by Thagg ( 9904 ) <> on Thursday December 27, 2012 @10:04AM (#42403305) Journal

    Of course, nobody mentions that the Gemini missions used storable propellants not unlike what the North Koreans are using. Now, it's true that Gemini was launched with Titan rockets, and Titans were originally designed as ICBMs, but they were used for civilian purposes as well.

    The more interesting part is that we recovered the missile parts. According to everything I read, the exact timing of the launch was somewhat of a surprise (maybe this isn't true) but nevertheless we managed to track the debris and fish it out of the ocean immediately. This tells the North Koreans that not only do they have no secrets, they never will have any.

    To me, the North Korean rocket looks a lot more like a satellite launcher than an ICBM. The first nuclear weapons that North Korea will deploy will be very heavy, and this rocket (as tapered as it is, and with such a small, low-powered third stage) just will not carry it. ICBMs are also designed to burn quickly, as they are vulnerable as long as they are in the atmosphere and burning. This rocket burns for many minutes, as satellite launchers do.

    • Unfortunately, nuclear weapons are just heavy satellites that have an orbit that intersects with the Earth at a pre-determined point. If they are developing lift capacity, it's only a matter of time until they can strap whatever crude nuke they have on the front of it, and lob it somewhere.

      Yes, they need better guidance systems, better lift, better everything. But getting something to orbital altitude is the first step, which the US and the USSR proved in the late 50s with Mercury / Redstone and Sputnik.

    • Maybe they could close the MADD gap by launching satellites whose sole purpose are to (when they feel truly threatened) self-destruct in the most sensitive / busy orbits, causing a cascading demolition derby of satellite shrapnel.

      Not exactly nuclear winter, but having to cleanup the entire upper atmosphere before re-establishing satellite communication would put a hell of a crimp in the Western world for at least a decade.
    • The recovery isn't too much of a problem. Even if the launch was 100% secret, as soon as the bird pops off the ground, she'll appear on the SK radar screens and they'll track it along with whoever else is watching the region.

      Spooling a destroyer or two to recover the wreckage from where it landed shouldn't take more than a day or two once you know where it went down.

  • RNFA != RFNA (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    It's not just "chemistry" it's freakin' rocket fuel chemistry and acronyms matter lest ye blow up!

    Red Fuming Nitric Acid

    RFNA is some nasty stuff. Worse liquid propellant oxider ever? Chlorine TriFloride (ClF3). Eats and/or combusts with everything and anything , including service & test engineers.

  • Idiocy? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mha ( 1305 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @11:22AM (#42403819) Homepage

    "These findings confirm that the stage is still Scud-level technology."

    Says who, a so-called "scientist" from the nation that just put the space shuttle into the scrapyard (where it belongs) - and has NOTHING to even do the same job as that old piece of junk?

    As compared to what, the anti-gravity drive used by the latest US spaceships? Last time I checked EVERYONE still uses good old rockets. Oh sure - they now (occasionally) have a camera looking backwards for nice launch videos. And possibly they use fuel Y instead of fuel X - excuse me guys, you celebrate marginal, tiny advances as being far ahead of the stone-age North Koreans?

    As far as getting into space, we ALL are at "stone-age" (1960s) level (i.e. rockets, huge flames, HUGE noise, lots of explosives). But today, progress is measured in micrometers, not in miles, so sure, let's celebrate how much more advanced we (the West) is compared to the most backward nation on earth.

    • I forgot to add that if they manage to have the potential to get a nuclear war head to the US (territory) it does not freaking matter if they use a ballista, a rocket or beam it across space. Same outcome. I've no idea what all this "analysis" telling us how bad and backwards everything North Korean is (which I don't doubt at all) is supposed to tell the (western) public? It sounds sooooo stupid.

      • by gl4ss ( 559668 )

        I doubt the "public" cares at all. for tech nerds it matters though.

        though it would be interesting if these design approaches have some effect on maximum possible payload and navigation.

    • by jon3k ( 691256 )
      The summary seems to try to draw it's own conclusion, the original article doesn't really leave the same impression. Example, from the original article:

      There have also been questions about what material was used to build the body of the first stage. The body of the Scud, and likely the Nodong, is made of steel, but reports say that the tank recovered is made from a lightweight aluminum-magnesium alloy, which is typically used for aircraft. This saves a significant amount of weight, which is important to allow its relatively low-thrust engines to get the launcher up to speed.

  • NK's deterrent is still only conventional, their nuclear capability is a joke.

    • Their physics package is still very crude. They need to miniaturize it in order to have something deliverable. The results also needs to be confirmed with successful tests, so before we register more NK tests, this hasn't happened.
    • Their lifting capacity is a joke, particular when they needs to carry a first generation warhead. They need a big ass rocket to drag such a contraption over long distances, so wake me up when we see th
    • You're not kidding about anything you posted.

      There is declassified YouTube video of a Minuteman-III test launch from Vandenberg AFB in California to hit a 55-gallon drum on an island in the South Pacific, and the launch crew is rated by how many feet they miss it by with the tungsten slug that is standing in for a warhead. I'd link it, but the proxy here blocks YouTube.

      If you have a sub-100 Kt nuke and want it to be effective, you need to actually put it where you want it to be with guidance systems. Aimi

  • by Sponge Bath ( 413667 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @11:38AM (#42403951)
    Ah, memories! RFNA and UDMH were what we used in Lance Missiles in the 70's/80's. These were aimed visually with hand cranks, a theodolite and a mirror. (a little more to the left) Interesting to see this called "advanced" in 2012.

The last thing one knows in constructing a work is what to put first. -- Blaise Pascal