Philippine authorities have just three to four hours after North Korea launches its rocket to warn people in coastal communities in northeastern Luzon to stay clear of the rocket’s projected path.
According to Maximo Sacro Jr., one of the founders of the Philippine Astronomical Society, it takes the booster three to four hours to fall in Philippine territory after it disengages from the rocket.
“[It’s important that] we know the time of launch. That’s the bottom line,” Sacro told reporters during a briefing at National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) headquarters in Quezon City.
Sacro, a special consultant to the NDRRMC as a “rocket authority,” said the rocket’s first booster would fall within minutes from launch.
The second booster is expected to disengage about three to four minutes later, Sacro said.
As the rocket will be at a much higher altitude by this time, the second booster will be in a free fall and will take about three to four hours before it crashes in Philippine territory, he said.
Debris is projected to crash in open sea, but disaster officials have warned local governments to be ready for emergencies, as the rocket could veer off its projected flight path and shower debris on land below.
“The first important thing we [must know] is what time [the rocket] was launched, and then what time [the first booster] fell in South Korea,” Sacro said. Then, he said, authorities can estimate when the second booster will fall in the Philippines.
Engineers were pumping fuel into the rocket that was to carry a satellite into space, officials at the North Korean space agency’s central command center said Wednesday, showing reporters a live feed of the west coast launch pad.
The NDRRMC said the Unha-3 rocket is similar to the Taepodong missile that North Korea is developing to carry nuclear warheads.
The long-range Taepodong-2 rocket, which failed in a test in 2006, is 35 meters long, 2.1 meters in diameter, has a range of 6,000 kilometers, warhead payload of 650 kilograms, and launch weight of 64,000 kilograms.
The Unha-3 will be launched from North Korea’s new Sohae Satellite Launching Station in North Pyongan Province, near the border with China. The rocket will follow a southward trajectory along or over South Korea, toward Taiwan and the Philippines.
190 km east of Luzon
Unha-3’s first stage is expected to separate and fall in the Yellow Sea and the second stage in an area 190 kilometers east of Luzon.
Threatened by debris falling from the rocket are Cagayan Valley, Polilio Island, Camarines Norte and Catanduanes.
The NDRRMC said debris would fall in others areas in Luzon if the rocket veered off its projected path.
The agency urges residents of Bugey, Gonzaga and Santa Ana towns in Cagayan; Palanan, Maconcon, Divilacan and Dinapigue towns in Isabela; Casiguran, Dilasag, Dinalungan, Baler and Dingalan in Aurora; Real, Infanta and General Nakar in Quezon; and Camarines Sur and Camarines Norte to stay indoors during the five-day window set for the launch.
The government’s no-fly and no-sail zones in northeastern Luzon comes into effect Thursday morning.
All kinds of aircraft, ships and fishing boats are prohibited from flying or sailing in the area 190 nautical miles northeast of Santa Ana, Cagayan, up to 150 nautical miles east of Polilio Island in Quezon.
“It is probable but highly unlikely that the rocket will hit land,” Sacro said.
He estimated that the falling booster will be about eight meters long and about two and a half meters in diameter.
“I think it won’t disintegrate into pieces,” he said, adding that the rocket was not expected to reach a very high altitude before the booster disengaged.
NDRRMC Executive Director Benito Ramos said the agency would get information on launch time and other important details from contacts in the United States, Japan and South Korea.
“We have direct communication,” Ramos said.
The no-fly and no-sail zone is in effect from early morning until noon since North Korea has said it will launch between 7 a.m. and 12 noon, which is between 6 a.m. and 11 a.m. Philippine time.
Ramos said the prohibition period could be extended depending on the actual time of the launch.
Also on Wednesday, Cagayan Representative Jack Enrile said his constituents had been told to heed the government’s precautionary measures despite statements that debris was likely to fall in open water and not in populated areas.
“We have issued an appeal for them to inform authorities or the Bureau of Fire Protection if rocket debris are observed or found in their areas,” Enrile said in a press statement.
“We have also been told that the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology have prepared their equipment and personnel to handle the debris and to assist local government units that may be affected,” Enrile said.
Enrile said, however, that there was nothing to be afraid of because it was still too early to tell whether the launch would be a success or a failure.
“North’s Korea’s rocket launch will likely have some negative implications on geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific region,” he said.
“The success of this launch will send the message that North Korea can fire an armed missile anywhere in the region, and that will create some tensions,” he said.
Disaster officials in the Bicol regions activated an emergency response team on Tuesday in preparation for the rocket launch.
Raffy Alejandro, regional director of the Office of Civil Defense-Bicol and Regional Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (RDRRMC) chairman, said the provinces of Camarines Norte and Catanduanes in Bicol were threatened by rocket debris.
Alejandro said the team—composed of military, police, Coast Guard and the Bureau of Fire Protection personnel—was placed on high alert, ready to be deployed to sea or land to assist in the recovery of rocket debris if this falls in Camarines Norte and Catanduanes.
The RDRRMC also placed on high alert regional disaster agencies. Residents of communities along coastal areas on the eastern seaboard were advised to stay indoors on the day of the rocket launch.
Residents were also advised to report to the nearest authorities sightings of falling debris and other related events. They were warned not to touch any piece of debris, as it may be harmful.
In Catanduanes, the Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council advised residents to “take extra precautions” instead of staying indoors during the rocket launch.
“The stay-indoor policy could paralyze economic activity in our small province and the consequences could be a disaster in itself,” Governor Joseph Cua said. With reports from Mar S. Arguelles and Fernan Gianan, Inquirer Southern Luzon; Gil Cabacungan; AP; and Inquirer Research