A nonprofit that studies science and international security says a satellite photo shows a North Korean rocket on a launch pad. North Korea has said it plans to send a commercial satellite into space next month that will be strapped to a rocket—but neighboring countries believe the real plan is to test the country's long-range missile technology, the Associated Press reports.

The Washington, D.C.–based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) says a commercial image snapped of the Musudan-ri missile site on Friday shows a shadow cast by a gantry. ISIS couldn’t determine whether another area of the photo was the top of a missile, the group says in a new report.

Additional commercial satellite images of the site captured over the past few weeks show a launch pad and crane in various positions, ISIS says. The upshot: “ Some activity is taking place, suggesting that the missile sections are being loaded into the gantry,” the ISIS report concludes. 

Maj. Stewart Upton, a U.S. Department of Defense spokesperson, declined to comment on the report or whether the agency believes the images are legit. “We don’t talk about intelligence matters,” he told ScientificAmerican.com today.

North Korea has said it will launch the satellite sometime between April 4 and April 8, and the U.S. deployed two missile-destroyer ships in South Korea today ahead of the launch. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday on Fox News Sunday that the U.S. had no plans to shoot down the rocket; U.N. Security Council sanctions adopted in 2006 prohibit North Korea from firing missiles and nukes.

"I don't know anyone at a senior level in the American government who does not believe this technology is intended as a mask for the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile," Gates said on the program. ISIS noted that media outlets have reported that North Korea has placed a Taepodong 2 missile on the launch pad. The South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported Thursday that a missile had been installed last Tuesday, according to The New York Times.

Gates said on the Fox program that the U.S. would “consider” intercepting “aberrant” missiles headed for Hawaii. He added that North Korean technology isn’t believed to be advanced enough to lob missiles that would reach Alaska or the U.S. West Coast.

In November, North Korea released a photo of leader Kim Jong-il, 68, whose health had been speculated about for months, designed to show he was in good condition. But a forensics expert who reviewed the image  for ScientificAmerican.com questioned the authenticity of the image following news reports challenging its legitimacy. Kim reportedly met with a Chinese official in January, the British Telegraph reported then, citing China's Xinhua news agency.

Flag of North Korea by Zscout370 via Wikimedia Commons