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Based on analysis of the burn marks found in images like this one from Planet Labs, experts at the Institute’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies say it is possible North Korea may have tested a missile capable of reaching the continental United States.

After analyzing satellite images, experts at the Middlebury Institute’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) identified the exact locations of North Korea’s most recent two missile tests.

Through its relationship with Planet, a satellite company in San Francisco, Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation program at CNS and his colleagues including Melissa Hanham, Catherine Dill MANPTS ’13, and Dave Schmerler MANPTS ’15 have access to unparalleled satellite imagery resources.

Map of Panghyon Airbase, Kusong, DPRK

Planet’s rapid revisit rate meant that they had images of the suspected site near Kusong on the days following each missile test. CNS analysts were able to download images from the site and work with Planet to process the near infrared (NIR) band of light to prove that the healthy vegetation around the airstrip had been burned after each test. By false-coloring the image red, the human eye can detect the disruption in the vegetation more easily. Explains Lewis, “We saw that big burn scars where the first test took place, which told us that it had failed spectacularly. The second burn scar was smaller and that missile did much better.”

Lewis says they can learn a lot from the images but not say completely what type of missile was tested. Yet he adds, wider analysis gives some indication that this might not be the same missiles North Korea has been testing recently. The prospect that tested missiles with enough range to reach Washington DC is in his view enough reason to sound a warning. “We can’t know for sure if it was a KN-08, but as we see it there is reason to warn people of this possibility.” KN-08 is the technical name used for intercontinental missiles, also called ICBM’s. North Korea has in the past tested Musudan missiles from a different site, across the country near Wonsan.

True to its mission to combat the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by training the next generation of nonproliferation specialists and disseminating timely information analysis, Hanham and Schmerler teach these skills they use for this analysis in a lab setting for the course “Geospatial Tools for Nonproliferation Analysis.” Says Hanham,”Our students get first-hand experience learning to process and analyze satellite imagery in real-world situations. I’m so proud of our students who are now becoming interns at Planet. I know they will go on to do great things.”

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Jason Warburg

Eva Gudbergsdottir