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An Iranian Ambassador in Space? INSS Insight No.

69, August 31, 2008


Shapir, Yiftah

The first announcement from Iran on the morning of August 17, 2008 reported a
satellite launching. Not long after, this announcement was replaced with a revised
version that stressed that this was an experimental launch using the Safir-e-Omid-1
(“ambassador of hope”) satellite launcher that did not carry a real satellite. The Iranian
media made do with a brief report on the launching and one television station aired a
short clip of the nighttime launch, without any clips of speeches or official statements
similar to those that accompanied previous launches.

In February 2008 Iran launched an experimental rocket named Kavoshgar-1, and it


was reported then that another two trial launches were scheduled prior to the launch into
space of the locally produced research satellite, Omid (“hope”).

In the brief video clip shown about the mid-August launch, it was possible to
discern that the missile launched differs from the missile photographed in the previous
launch. The missile photographed then looked identical on the outside to the familiar,
upgraded Shehab-3 missile. This time, even though the photo was blurred (and the
launch took place in the dark), it was possible to distinguish that:

1. The tip of the missile is very different from the baby bottle- like shape of the
Shehab-3.

2. The missile appeared longer than the Shehab-3.

3. The launch was carried out from a fixed launch tower and not from a mobile
missile launcher, as on the previous occasion.

4. The missile launched used liquid fuel propellant (like the various versions of the
Shehab).

American defense sources claimed that they monitored the launch using the SPY-1
radar on the destroyer USS Russell, and that contrary to Iran’s declarations, “the launch
did not proceed as planned.” According to them, while the first stage proceeded
smoothly, the flight pattern of the second stage was “erratic.” Yet overall, it is not
possible to determine definitively if this was indeed a scheduled trial, as announced last
February, or if it was Iran’s intention to actually launch the Omid satellite into space.
Additional support for the view that the Iranians actually attempted to launch a satellite
is the date chosen: the launch took place on the birthday of the “Mehdi,” an important
date on the Shiite calendar.

Current Situation

The Iranian Safir-e-Omid-1 satellite launcher was first shown to the media in February.
As part of the events surrounding the launch of the Kavoshgar-1 and the dedication of
the Iranian Center for Space Research in a desert area of the Simunan region, a mock-up
of the satellite launcher was photographed. It too had a thickened nose with the
inscription (in Latin letters) Safir Omid IRILV (the abbreviation apparently stands for
Islamic Republic of Iran Launch Vehicle).

An analysis of the photos suggests that this is a two- or three-stage system that
uses liquid fuel propellant and apparently relies on the same technology as the various
Shehab missiles. It seems that the first stage is identical, or almost identical to the
enhanced Shehab-3 missile. The second stage, which also uses liquid fuel propellant,
has a similar or identical engine but is much shorter (the diameter of the second stage is
identical to that of the first stage – approximately 1.35 meter). It is possible the missile
also has a third stage – a solid fuel orbital kick motor. The total length of the Safir-e-
Omid launcher is estimated at around 22 meters.

Already in the February 2008 launch, Iran stated that the Kavoshgar rocket had
two stages. At the time, this possibility seemed less likely, because the published photos
showed with certainty a single-stage Shehab-3 missile. In retrospect, it is possible that
already then a two-stage missile was launched (and for various reasons the Iranians
preferred to publish photos of a different launch).

Even though Iran has for years openly declared its satellite-related ambitions, it
still lags behind many other countries in the region. Iran’s first satellite, the Sina-1, was
in effect built by a Russian company and launched by a Russian satellite launcher in
October 2005. It is a 170-kilogram research satellite. To the best of anyone’s
knowledge, it cannot take military-quality photos. Another satellite that was to have
been launched even before the Sina-1 was the Masbah. This is a 65-kilogram research
satellite built by an Italian company and according to the statements of the Iranian
spokesmen, was to have been launched by the Iranian launch vehicle as early as 2003.
This satellite is still awaiting its launch (using a Russian launcher). The communications
satellite, Zohreh, has been through many incarnations, starting as far back as the days of
the shah. In its latest incarnation, it is to be built by a Russian company and carry West
European-manufactured communication equipment. It seems that this project too is
suffering from numerous delays.

In the past, Iranian spokesmen mentioned another satellite known as the Safir
(ambassador) – a small, 20-kilogram satellite. This name has now been affixed to the
launch vehicle and not the satellite. It is quite possible that the Safir and the Omid are
actually the same satellite, and in the past the name Safir was mistakenly associated
with the satellite. About the Omid satellite itself there is little information, other than
that it was developed and built by Iran alone and that it is scheduled for launch into an
orbit at a height of 650 kilometers.

Technological Implications

It seems that despite the failure of the recent launch, Iran is progressing in the
development of a liquid-fuelled two-stage satellite launcher. This launcher will enable it
to launch a satellite weighing several dozen kilograms into space – well beyond the
capability of the launcher based on the single-stage Shehab.
The multi-stage technology may also have a large impact on the development of
the capability to launch military grade surface-to-surface missiles. Such an ability could
enable Iran to launch longer range missiles – up to several thousand kilometers – or to
carry heavier loads. However, it seems that the Iranian focus in this project is actually
on satellite launching capabilities. This is perceived, at least at the present stage, as a
critical element for national pride, proof that the Islamic Revolution succeeded in
scoring achievements at the forefront of science and technology.

In the future, Iran hopes to achieve greater satellite capability, including the ability
to independently launch heavier satellites, and the ability to develop and launch military
satellites. These are perceived as an important element of national power, no less so than
the possession of a reservoir of strategic missiles.

It seems that at present, Iran is still encountering numerous problems. At this


point, the project is still little more than a hope for the future and an attempt to spark
national pride. The continuing delays in the project, like the delays in other satellite-
related projects, indicate an ongoing difficulty in moving forward with these kinds of
complex projects.