North Korea's aerospace industry can be called a lot of things — "successful" is not one of them. So far, the Hermit Kingdom has failed to put any of its first four rocket-launched payloads into orbit but it looks as though fifth time was the charm.
North Korea says it put a satellite in space last night. And the rocket that took it there is capable of reaching Los Angeles.
North Korea first showed off its aeronautical prowess — as much as a secretive authoritarian regime can — in 1998 with a Taepodong-1 rocket. Neither the rocket nor its satellite payload reached orbit. The country's second attempt in 2006 ended 40 seconds after liftoff when the Taepodong-2 rocket exploded. For its third attempt in 2009, North Korean engineers created a more advanced version of the Taepodong-2, known as the Unha-2 ("Galaxie-2"), but its third-stage engine failed to ignite and the entire assembly crashed into the Pacific Ocean. And in April of this year, North Korea's latest rocket iteration, the Unha-3, also "failed to reach orbit".
Last night, though, North Korea's Unha-3 launch was a apparently a success. Which is a little terrifying, given its presumed specs and capabilities. While they can't be independently verified, we do know that it too is a three-stage rocket, based on the Unha-2 design, measuring about 32m tall and 2.5m in diameter. Its primary stage engine carries 80,000kg of fuel, its second stage carries an additional 7000kg, and its final stage carries a 100kg weather satellite, the Kwangmyongsong-3, into polar orbit. The satellite is equipped with little more than a camera but is being launched more for the experience it provides than the data it sends.
The Unha-3 differs from its predecessor in that its third stage carries more fuel since the new rocket is being launched to the South rather than to the East so as to avoid flying over Japan. In all, it has an estimated range of approximately 10,000km — roughly the distance from Pyongyang to Los Angeles. Let's hope it never carries much more than a satellite. [Space 1, 2 - Wikipedia - Yon Hap News]