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Here's What We Know About North Korea's Rocket and the 'Satellite' It Put Into Orbit

North Korea defied UN sanctions and launched a long-range rocket on Sunday, but what it claims is a satellite is suspected of being a hunk of space junk.
(Photo via EPA/Kyodo)

North Korea launched a long-range rocket on Sunday that carried into orbit what it called a satellite, but what is suspected of being a hunk of space junk that Pyongyang used to justify a test of banned ballistic missile technology. The launch, which was announced in advance, again defied UN sanctions just weeks after a nuclear bomb test.

The rocket lifted off at around 9:30am local time on a southward trajectory. Japan's Fuji Television Network showed a streak of light heading into the sky, taken from a camera at China's border with North Korea.

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The US Strategic Command said it detected a missile entering space, and South Korea's military said the rocket had put an object into orbit. North Korea called the satellite launch a "complete success," and said that it was making a polar orbit of Earth every 94 minutes.

Alleged photos of North Korean rocket luanch taken from Chinese border city Dandong being shared on Sina Weibo. — Tom Hancock (@hancocktom)February 7, 2016

KMS 4 orbit and current KMS 3-2 orbit: — Dr Marco Langbroek (@Marco_Langbroek)February 7, 2016

South Korean lawmakers, citing the country's spy agency, said the satellite is worthless, the Yonhap news agency reported. North Korea last launched a long-range rocket in 2012, putting into orbit what it called a communications satellite, though no signal has ever been detected from it. Searching for more clues about the rocket launched Sunday, South Korea's navy retrieved what it believes to be a fairing used to protect the satellite on its journey into a space.

Related: North Korea Launched Its Rocket and Japan Didn't Shoot It Down

On Sunday, North Korea's state news agency carried a still picture of a white rocket that was nearly identical to the Unha-3 rocket it launched in 2012. Other photos showed leader Kim Jong-un surrounded by cheering military officials at what appeared to be the launch site's command center. Other photos were released of Kim, who is believed to be 33 years old, signing the launch order.

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Just in: Still images broadcast on KCTV show Kim Jong Un at launch site — Martyn Williams (@martyn_williams)February 7, 2016

Just in: Launch images broadcast on KCTV — Martyn Williams (@martyn_williams)February 7, 2016

North Korea's National Aerospace Development Administration called the launch "an epochal event in developing the country's science, technology, economy and defense capability by legitimately exercising the right to use space for independent and peaceful purposes." The satellite is named Kwangmyongsong-4 or "Bright Star" after a poem written by late leader Kim Jong-il.

"If it can communicate with the Kwangmyongsong-4, North Korea will learn about operating a satellite in space," said David Wright, co-director and senior scientist at the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Even if not, it gained experience with launching and learned more about the reliability of its rocket systems."

Related: As North Korea Prepares to Launch A Rocket, Everyone Else Prepares to Freak Out About It

On January 6, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test, successfully detonating what it claimed to be a hydrogen bomb. The blast was smaller than the powerful explosion typically produced by a thermonuclear device, leading to widespread skepticism about the claim. North Korea is also believed to be working on miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to put on a missile, and it has shown off two versions of a ballistic missile resembling a type that could reach the West Coast of the United States.

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The launch on Sunday prompted South Korea and the United States to announce that they would explore the feasibility of deploying an advanced missile defense system in South Korea "at the earliest possible date." China and Russia both oppose such a move.

South Korea and the US said that if the advanced missile defense system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) was deployed to South Korea, it would be focused only on North Korea. South Korea has been reluctant to discuss openly the possibility of deploying THAAD.

Related: North Korea's Rebranded Space Agency Is Basically Just Building Nuclear Missiles

"North Korea continues to develop their nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, and it is the responsibility of our Alliance to maintain a strong defense against those threats," General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, US Forces Korea commander, said in a statement. "THAAD would add an important capability in a layered and effective missile defense."

So far they look pretty similar, but will get it into Photoshop to make more accurate measurements on Monday. — Melissa Hanham (@mhanham)February 7, 2016

Kwangmyongsong and Unha-3 overlaid. Perfect fit. — Melissa Hanham (@mhanham)February 7, 2016

China, South Korea's biggest trading partner, repeated what it says is "deep concern" about a system that has radar capable of penetrating its territory.

China expressed regret over the rocket launch, and called on all sides to act cautiously and refrain from steps that might raise tensions in the region. China's Foreign Ministry said late on Sunday that it had summoned the North Korean ambassador to "make representations and make clear China's principled position."

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Related: Yes, North Korea Probably Tested an H-Bomb — Just Not the Kind You're Thinking Of

The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting on Sunday, and later issued a statement that "strongly condemned" the launch. The Security Council said that even if North Korea characterized it as "a satellite launch or space launch vehicle," the launch was a test of ballistic missile technology that contributes to Pyongyang's "development of nuclear weapon delivery system." North Korea already faces stiff sanctions, but the Security Council said it would quickly move to adopt "further significant measures."

North Korea had notified the International Maritime Organization that the launch was coming, initially giving a time frame of February 8-25. Those dates were changed on Saturday to February 7-14, apparently to take advantage of clear weather on Sunday.

Reuters contributed to this report

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