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Reports: North Korean rocket launch ends in failure

Posted: April 12, 2012
Updated @ 4 a.m. on April 13

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North Korea launched a three-stage space launcher Friday, defying warnings from international governments, but the rocket failed and crashed into the ocean moments after liftoff, according to defense officials in the region.

Animation of the planned launch trajectory of North Korea's Unha rocket. Credit: Analytical Graphics Inc.

U.S. military sources said their systems detected the launch of North Korea's Unha, or Taepodong 2, rocket at 7:39 a.m. local time Friday (2239 GMT; 6:39 p.m. EDT Thursday).

"North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command officials acknowledged today that U.S. systems detected and tracked a launch of the North Korean Taepodong 2 missile at 6:39 p.m. EDT. The missile was tracked on a southerly launch over the Yellow Sea," said a statement released by NORAD, a military command which tracks air and space traffic.

"Initial indications are that the first stage of the missile fell into the sea 165 [kilometers] west of Seoul, South Korea. The remaining stages were assessed to have failed and no debris fell on land. At no time were the missile or the resultant debris a threat," the statement said.

The NHK television network quoted Japanese defense officials who said the rocket reached a peak altitude of about 400,000 feet, or 120 kilometers. The officials said the rocket split into four pieces and fell into the Yellow Sea, according to NHK.

South Korean defense officials also said the launch appeared to have ended in failure, according to the Yonhap news agency.

Debris from the rocket appeared to fall near the first stage drop box, indicating the launch mishap may have struck shortly before first and second stage separation.

ABC News reported U.S. assets detected a "larger than expected" flare from the rocket about 81 seconds after liftoff.

The launch occurred from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, a remote facility northwest of Pyongyang and about 35 miles from the Chinese border city of Dandong.

North Korea released a brief statement via an official state news outlet confirming the launch fell short of orbit and announcing an engineering inquiry.

The White House vowed sharp consequences if North Korea proceeded with the launch. The U.N. Security Council planned a meeting Friday to discuss the launch. Missile tests by the North were banned under an earlier Security Council resolution.

The White House has warned of sharp consequences if the launch goes forward, including the suspension of planned shipments of food aid to North Korea's impoverished citizens.

The isolated North Korean regime claimed the three-stage Unha rocket carried an Earth observation satellite named Kwangmyongsong 3. In an unprecedented move, North Korea invited Western reporters to visit the launch facility and control center in the days leading up to the mission, showing off the nearly 100-foot-tall rocket and a cube-shaped spacecraft officials said would fly aboard the booster.

Kwangmyongsong means bright star in Korean, and Unha means galaxy.

North Korea says it scheduled the launch to commemorate the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung, the communist state's 'eternal president' and founder.

The North Korean government claimed a 2009 rocket launch carried a small satellite into space, but independent observers confirmed nothing from the flight ever reached orbit.

The Unha rocket launched Friday from a new base on North Korea's west coast. The primary missile test facility before the Sohae center - also designated Tongchang-ri - was on North Korea's east coast.

The flight plan called for the Unha booster to pitch toward the south and drop its first and second stages in Yellow Sea west of South Korea and near the Philippines, respectively.

If the rocket crashed within several minutes of liftoff, it likely made it no more than a few miles from the launch pad.