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    North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the rocket launch (File)

    Russian Rocket Scientists Look at North Korea’s Plans to Land on the Moon

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    On Thursday, a senior North Korean official told AP that North Korea is looking to plant its national flag on the moon's surface, possibly within the next ten years. Russian rocketry experts offered their input on whether Pyongyang actually has the technical and logistical capabilities to make it to the celestial body.

    Speaking to AP, Hyon Kwang Il, the director of the scientific research department of the North Korean National Aerospace Development Administration, told the news agency that his country would defy all efforts to block the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's ambitions in space, and would ultimately plant its flag on the moon.

    "Even though the US and its allies try to block our space developments, our aerospace scientists will conquer space and definitely plant the flag of the DPRK on the moon," Hyon said.  The official added that his country "has started to accomplish our plan and we have started to gain a lot of successes."

    The official explained that the first step to a successful moon launch would be launching several observation satellites into Earth orbit in order to improve the country's communications capabilities, and to provide data for agricultural and forestry assessments. "All of this work will be preparation for our flight to the moon," Hyon noted. 

    Ultimately, the official insisted that his country intends to master "manned space flight, and [conduct] scientific experiments in space, make a flight to the moon and [conduct] moon exploration," and even explore other planets.

    Commenting on North Korea's ambitions, the Russian online news hub Gazeta.ru suggested that at first glance, Pyongyang's lunar ambitions are not as farfetched as they may seem.

    The paper recalled that "it's worth noting that the DPRK is one of the first countries of the Asia-Pacific region to make efforts to master rocketry technology. The country's space program is carried out under the supervision of the Committee of Space Technology. The first officially successful launch of a satellite took place on December 12, 2012, making the country the tenth space power in the world. North Korea is capable of launching satellites using homegrown launch vehicles, putting them ahead of South Korea."

    Moreover, Gazeta.ru noted, "the country possesses three types of three-stage rockets, based on military ballistic missiles, which are re-engineered versions of Soviet rockets." As recently as February 2016, Pyongyang successfully launched the Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite into orbit.

    "The question," the online news resource suggested, "is whether the North Korean rocket scientists are capable of creating a super-heavy launch vehicle." A side question, Gazeta.ru added, is "what kinds of delivery vehicles for flights into near and distant space the country has at its disposal at the moment."

    Western experts speaking to AP suggested that a North Korean moon mission might be possible, but that it will take time. For his part, Markus Schiller, an expert in North Korean missile and rocketry technology, told the news agency that based on what he has seen so far of the country's space program, "it will take North Korea about a decade or more to get to lunar orbit at best – if they really pursue this mission. My personal guess, however, is that they might try but they will fail, and we will not see a successful North Korea lunar orbiter for at least two decades, if ever."

    For the most part, Russian analysts are similarly pessimistic. Vladimir Dvorkin, a retired major general and former director of the Russian Defense Ministry's Fourth Central Research Institute, said that he is doubtful about the DPRK's material capabilities to conduct moon exploration.

    The engineer, who had been involved in the Soviet Union's missile programs from the early 1960s onward, said that he does not believe that North Korea presently has "the technological capabilities to create a super-heavy launch vehicle, nor a spaceship that could carry them to the moon."

    "Creating such equipment will take several decades," Dvorkin suggested. "It's not even certain that this program will be implemented by the DPRK in principle."

    Gazeta.ru pointed out that from the viewpoint of existing technology, the Unha-3 carrier rocket, which successfully carried the 100 kg Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite into orbit in 2012, was basically a successful combination of scaled-up components based on old Soviet Scud missile designs. "Unha-3 itself had a launch weight of 91 tons, a length of 30 meters and a diameter of 2.4 meters," the paper added.

    In this Dec. 12, 2012 file photo released by Korean Central News Agency, North Korea's Unha-3 rocket lifts off from the Sohae launch pad in Tongchang-ri, North Korea
    © AP Photo/ KCNA
    In this Dec. 12, 2012 file photo released by Korean Central News Agency, North Korea's Unha-3 rocket lifts off from the Sohae launch pad in Tongchang-ri, North Korea

    "For comparison, the start weight of the American Saturn 5 rocket launched to the moon was 2,965 tons. The starting weight of the super heavy Soviet N1 rocket, developed in the early 1960s for the Soviets' own flights to the moon, weighed 2,950 tons. The N1 had a diameter of 17 meters. Finally, the start weight of the Energiya carrier rocket was 2,400 tons."

    "Against this background, the 91 ton North Korean rocket looks more than simply lightweight," Gazeta.ru suggested. 

    The Soviet N-1 rocket.
    © Sputnik/ Alexander Peslyak
    The Soviet N-1 rocket.

    "The bulk of the start weight consists of fuel needed to bring the spacecraft to the vicinity of the moon." Therefore, the hub noted, "to make a flight to the moon, it will be necessary to take at least 120-140 tons' worth of materiel into space. Even in a ten year timeframe, making the leap from a 100 kg payload to a 140 ton payload, and creating a heavy-class Energiya or Saturn-5-like carrier rocket is not within the capabilities of North Korea's rocket engineers."

    Ultimately, only time will tell if North Korean scientists will be able to come up with some innovative solutions to plant a literal flag on the moon. In any case, Lenta.ru's analysis makes it clear that whatever the country does, it will not be able to afford the technologies used by the superpowers for the moon race of the 1960s.

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    Tags:
    Democratic Republic of North Korea (DPRK), expert commentary, moon landing, satellite, analysis
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