Early the morning of Nov. 29th, North Korea test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile to a record-breaking speed and altitude for the isolated nation.
North Korea's new show of force follows an ICBM test launch in July and a powerful thermonuclear test blast in September.
Officials in the U.S., Japan, and South Korea confirmed that North Korea launched the new missile, called Hwasong-15, from Sain Ni, North Korea. Its payload soared about 2,800 miles into space before falling back to Earth, ultimately landing in the Sea of Japan some 53 minutes later and about 620 miles away from the launch pad.
The ballistic missile, launched from Sain Ni, near Pyongsong, North Korea, was launched at an angle so as to arch sharply and fall into the Sea of Japan, avoiding crossing over enemy countries. (Image Google Earth and We Are the Mighty)
Launching a missile nearly straight up and so high may seem strange, if not unbelievable. For reference, the International Space Station orbits Earth from about 250 miles above the planet's surface.
But David Wright, a physicist and missile expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said this arc avoids flying over Japan and other nearby nations — limiting political fallout — and represents a "very impressive" feat.
This is because the new missile, if tilted toward the U.S. during launch, could achieve a top speed of more than 17,000 mph — and a target radius of roughly 8,100 miles.
"This missile could reach all of the United States," Wright told Business Insider, adding a critical caveat: "But it doesn't mean much without considering the payload."
ICBM nuclear threat
Wright said ICBMs burn rocket fuel for about three to five minutes before deploying a warhead on top. The warhead continues coasting through space for another 30 minutes or so, falling toward Earth under the force of gravity until it reenters the atmosphere, reaches its target, and detonates.
This alarms North Korea's adversaries because the nation recently detonated a thermonuclear device that yielded the energy of perhaps 300 kilotons of TNT — about 20 times as much as the bomb the U.S. detonated over Hiroshima in 1945.
But Wright doubts such a weapon, also known as a hydrogen bomb, will be miniaturized into a missile-ready warhead by North Korea anytime soon. Rather, he thinks the first type of warhead North Korea may be capable of launching is a less powerful, Hiroshima-style atomic weapon.
Being able to deliver such firepower "is still a big deal," he said, but is by no means a proven capability.
"There's a big debate going on in the technical community that works on these things, and it's exactly about how heavy the warhead would be that North Korea could build, and what capabilities they can get out of their rocket engines," he said.
'This is not a fluke'
For now, experts such as Wright assume North Korea's recent ICBM launched with a very lightweight dummy payload to give the missile alarming show of range. An actual warhead built by North Korea might weigh "several hundred kilograms," or more than 600 pounds.
"That's going to significantly reduce the distance," Wright said, likely enough to keep an armed missile payload from striking American cities.
What's more, the current estimated accuracy of North Korea's weapons may be as poor as six to 12 miles. (U.S. and Russian missiles can hit a target within a couple of hundred feet.) If North Korea targeted San Francisco, for example, there's a chance the bomb could miss the city entirely and detonate over the Pacific Ocean.
Map showing the ranges some North Korean ballistic missiles can reach. (Graphic from Wikimedia Commons)
"It's kind of like throwing a baseball," Wright said. "The farther away your target is, the harder it is to hit. If the speed or aim is off by a tiny amount, those small errors add up to big distances over intercontinental ranges."
Wright said the Nov. 28 test launch is an incremental step for North Korea's nuclear weapons program, but emphasized that it's important not to dismiss.
"It shows this is not a fluke, that they're continuing this progress toward something more and more capable," Wright said. "If things continue along they way they're going, I think there's little doubt North Korea will eventually have the capability to hit targets in the U.S. with nuclear weapons."