Written by Yiftah Shapir
INSS Insight No. 48, March 5, 2008
On February 4, Iran launched a sounding rocket into space. The launch was part of the inauguration of the Iranian Space Center and received extensive coverage in the Iranian media, which focused on Iran’s intention this summer to launch by its own means a satellite wholly developed by Iranian industry.
The Sounding Rocket
The rocket launched at the Space Research Center was dubbed Kavoshgar-1 (“Explorer”) and carried scientific instrumentation. About two weeks after the launch, it was reported that the rocket had two stages – one burned for 90-100 seconds and the other for 300 seconds. It reached an altitude of 200 km. and then returned to earth by parachute. Its payload included instrumentation that signaled geographic location, wind conditions, air pressure, temperature, etc. Iranian spokesmen explained that two more rockets would be launched in the coming months and that their dimensions would permit them to carry the Iranian “Omid” (Hope) satellite.
Pictures broadcast by Iranian media show that the launch vehicle was very similar to the well-known “Shehab-3B” missile. It was even launched from a truck-towed launcher, similar to those shown in past Shehab-3 launches. It was also clear from the rocket contrail that the missile was liquid-fuelled (like the various Shehab models). Shehab-3 is a single-stage missile with a maximum burn-time of about 115 seconds (consistent with what was published for the Kavoshgar-1). In all likelihood, the “second stage” to which spokesmen referred was therefore the unpowered nose-cone of the missile, which contains the instrumentation, and that is what reached the altitude of 200 km. in its ballistic trajectory. That altitude is typical of the Shehab-3, which with full warhead in operational flight over maximum range has reached similar and even greater altitudes. Nor was this launch Kavoshgar’s first. In February 2007, Iran spokesmen reported the launch of a similar sounding rocket to an altitude of 150 km.
The Space Research Center
The Iranian Space Research Center was built in an uninhabited desert area in Semnan Province, south-east of Tehran. The Center has a remote satellite command-and-control facility and a satellite launch pad. Pictures of the site show a launch pad and a launch tower (which was not used in the latest launch).
The “Omid” Satellite
Little has been published about the Omid satellite scheduled for launch this summer except that it is a sounding rocket developed and built by Iranian scientists and is intended to monitor natural disasters. The satellite has been under development for a decade. It will reportedly orbit at an altitude of 650 km. and will pass over Iran some 5-6 times per day.
The Satellite Program
Although Iran has for years declared its aspirations in the realm of satellites, it still lags behind many other states in the region. Its first satellite, the “Sina-1,” was basically constructed by a Russian company and launched by a Russian rocket in October 2005. That was a research satellite weighing 170 kg., with no known military-grade photographic capabilities. Another satellite, which was supposed to be launched even before the Sina-1, was the “Mesbah” research satellite but weighing only 65 kg. It was built by an Italian company and, according to Iranian spokesmen, it was supposed to be launched by an Iranian rocket in 2003; it is still waiting to be launched, probably by a Russian launcher as well. The “Zohreh” communications satellite went through many incarnations, even during the time of the Shah.
The latest version was supposed to be built by a Russian company and to carry western European broadcasting equipment. This project, too, appears to be suffering numerous delays. In the past, Iranian spokesmen mentioned two other satellites. One was a joint project with several other countries (including Pakistan and China), named SMMS. In recent years, there has been no information available about the fate of the SMMS. The other was the “Safir” (“Ambassador”) – a small satellite weighing 20 kg. It is entirely possible that the Safir and Omid are one and the same.
Nothing is known about the launch vehicle that will carry the Omid into space. About a decade ago, there were reports about an Iranian-developed satellite launcher named IRIS, which was based on the Shehab-3 missile. A launcher based on Shehab technology (single-stage, powered by fuel based on kerosene and red fuming nitric acid) could carry into space a satellite weighing no more than 20 kg. Anything heavier would have to rely on something similar to that used experimentally by North Korea a decade ago, i.e., a two- or three-stage rocket whose first stage is still based on outdated technology.
Thus far, there is information about such a development or any experiments by Iranian scientists to launch multi-stage missiles of any sort. It is known that Iran has developed a missile, similar in size to the Shehab, which uses solid fuel. That technology would allow the Iranians to build stronger launch vehicles, but here, too, there is no information about experiments with this technology (apart from reports of the Iranians themselves).
All Iranians who have spoken out since the inauguration of the new Space Center have stressed, not the strategic significance of the satellite project but rather its importance for national honor, i.e., as proof of the Islamic Revolution’s scientific accomplishments.
Iran undoubtedly also aspires to advanced satellite capability for communications, scientific, economic and military reasons. To achieve that, Iran is prepared to invest much in its missile and satellite programs. However, at the present time, the projects still appear to be little more than first steps that hold out future hopes for national pride while lacking practical application. The protracted delays both in indigenous projects and in procurement from abroad (e.g., the Mesbah and the Zohreh) reflect ongoing difficulties in managing and advancing such complicated undertakings.
The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs.