What We'll Learn from North Korea's 'Satellite' Launch Next Week

After weeks of bluster, North Korea is finally going to fire a satellite into polar orbit next week, which raises several questions.

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After weeks of bluster, North Korea is finally going to fire a satellite into polar orbit next week. At least that's what it says its going to do. In the launch slated for April 11, the U.S . and its allies will be standing by for an intelligence bonanza as the country puts on a show for the world to see. No one really knows exactly what Pyongyang is capable of or which of its neighbors it's willing to anger the most, but many of those questions will be answered next week. Here are the major ones:

Is this is a disguise missile test? North Korea insists that its putting on a peaceful satellite launch, but the U.S. sees this as a disguised ballistic missile test. The AP's Eric Talmadge says we'll be able to answer that question without a shadow of a doubt next week. "Experts can easily estimate from photographs the rocket stages' mass ratio -- a measure of their efficiency -- and that will give a quick indication of whether the rocket is designed primarily to be a space vehicle launcher or long-range missile."

Did Iran help North Korea? Israeli media have reported that North Korea's test is actually a pretext for an Iranian missile launch. While those reports are disputed, there is the presumption that Iran has aided North Korea's efforts. In a report yesterday in Haaretz, Israel's leading expert on ballistic missiles, Tal Inbar, said "if the two programs are not brothers, they are first-cousins." Haaretz's Anshel Pfeffer goes on to note "the Sohae launch-pad is almost totally identical to an Iranian installation in Semnan, which yet to be used." Depending on the craft used and the technology observed, analysts will get a better idea on the level of cooperation between Iran and North Korea. As Inbar noted, Tehran's rockets systems are much more sophisticated than Korea's.

Are our own monitoring capabilities good? Joe Pappalardo at Popular Mechanics says the latest in U.S. spyware will be in full gear during next week's launch. That includes its experimental Space-Based Infrared System Geosynchronous-1 satellite, "which can detect smaller missile launches with dimmer plumes and will be fully operational by the year's end." Pappalaardo doubts that the U.S. would pass up on opportunity on finding out what this satellite can do. "Don't be surprised to hear (in a few years) that the experimental satellite had its eyes on North Korea for this launch."

How capable is North Korea? The launcher device North Korea is using next week doesn't necessarily have a spotless record, the AP reports. In the past 6 years, there have been two major mishaps. "The Unha-3 rocket that will be used in the launch is believed to be a modified version of North Korea's long-range Taepodong-2 ballistic missile, which mixes domestic, Soviet-era and possibly Iranian designs," reports the news agency. "North Korea launched its first Taepodong-2 in 2006 and it exploded just 40 seconds after liftoff. A follow-up attempt in 2009 got off the launch pad and successfully completed a tricky pitching maneuver, but analysts believe its third stage failed to separate properly, sending it and the satellite it carried into the Pacific."

Who is North Korea most willing to piss off? This question will be largely answered by the trajectory of the rocket. North Korea's neighbors are all terrified at the prospect of a faulty craft malfunctioning and crashing onto their territory. No one wants a Korean rocket in their air space as such, its trajectory will show who Pyongyang is most willing to infuriate. The AP reports that preliminary indications suggest that the rocket will travel south rather than east, which it did in 2009 in a launch that infuriated Japan. The AP says avoiding Japan "could indicate North Korea is being more cautious about its neighbors' reactions — though it has alarmed others such as the Philippines which could be in the rocket's path."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.