While the world is focusing on negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program, where do things stand on the other piece of the puzzle, the Iranian space-launch and missile program?
Reliable and accurate public information is hard to come by, and I think part of the problem is the lack of public relations professionals in the space program and space expertise in the press outlets available to the English language reader. Or maybe they also have difficulty getting reliable information.
A good example of what results from this confusion is the controversy over the reported January 2013 suborbital launch of a capsule containing a monkey, and the skepticism that the launch took place at all or that the monkey survived the flight. Photos published in the Iranian press of the monkey before and after the flight clearly showed two different monkeys. Iranian officials explained the discrepancy as arising in a press outlet that used some photos were from a previous launch attempt.
Many articles are simply reporting announcements by Iranian government or academic officials or space scientists that a satellite is ready or a launch is being planned. (Many small Iranian satellites are being built by many different academic, industrial, and government groups, and the announcement that a satellite is complete may just mean that it is ready to join the queue for eventual launch, not that a launch is imminent.)
On the other hand, launch dates are sometimes announced and then pass without official comment, possibly indicating a failure that the government does not wish to publicize.
So it’s best to take announcements with a grain or two of salt. It’s also not at all clear that Iran would find an advantage in drawing attention to its missile and launcher programs during this critical period of negotiation with western nations.
Despite some controversy over the details, the last acknowledged launch in the Iranian program was January’s suborbital launch, using a short-range launcher; the launch sent it to an altitude of 125 km before returning to Earth. Some reports call the launcher the Pishgam, but it is not clear whether this is the name of the launcher or the “bio-capsule” carrying the monkey. Most people assume the launcher was similar to the liquid-fuel Kavoshgar-5, which was used for Iran’s previous suborbital flights.
The last acknowledged orbital launch was February 2012’s launch of the 50-kg Navid-e Elm-o Sanat satellite on the two-stage Safir launcher, though evidence points to one or more failed attempts since then.
Early September reports suggested that Iran was planning another suborbital flight next, with some kind of living creature aboard—a monkey, mouse, rabbit, or cat, according to the Iranian Space Agency’s research director. This report says the launch would use a new suborbital launcher—the Pishgam 2—with liquid fuel instead of solid. If true, this might imply that the January launch used one of Iran’s short-range solid missiles for the booster, but there is not enough information to know for sure. In any event, this launch seems not to have materialized.
Upcoming Satellite Launches
A few days ago the director of the Iranian Space Agency, Hamid Fazeli, announced that the Tadbir satellite was undergoing final tests before launch on a Safir rocket. Though Iran is producing a profusion of small satellites, Tadbir was not “on my radar.” SatNews reports that it is an upgraded version of the Navid-e Elm-o Sanat satellite, with on-board GPS and a higher resolution camera, and built at the Space Research Laboratory of Tehran Science and Technology University. Some reports say the Tadbir satellite is “equipped with devices that will check the effects of space on living organisms” but I don’t really see how that is consistent with a small, non-returning satellite with a rudimentary camera and navigation device. While these launch windows often get announced and then pass without comment, it’s worth keeping an eye out to see if any NOTAMs (notices to airmen) get posted.
The same SatNews story reported that Sharif-Sat was also being prepared for launch. With a mass of less than 50 kg, this would also be launched using the Safir booster. Sharif-Sat has been on deck for quite a while, and was initially meant to be launched by March 2013, and I’m not sure why Tadbir is jumping the line or when the Sharif-Sat launch is scheduled.
It is unclear what is happening with the larger Simorgh launcher that Iran is believed to be developing. Simorgh is a much larger rocket than Safir, similar to a two-stage version of North Korea’s Unha-2 launcher and using a cluster of 4 Nodong engines for the first stage. It is reported to have a mass of 85 tons, compared to about 25 tons for Safir. Iran needs the Simorgh to allow it to launch heavier satellites to higher orbits, but it is a concern in the west since it would also give Iran the ability to use it as a missile that could launch heavier payloads over longer distances than it can now.
However, the Simorgh has still not started flight testing, despite reports for several years of plans to use it to launch satellites. The latest report says it will not make its debut until at least sometime in the next Iranian year (which starts in March 2014). So Iran’s progress remains slow, possibly hobbled by the heavy trade sanctions imposed on space and missile relevant technology.
The fact that Iran has agreed to significant transparency measures for its nuclear program as part of the recent negotiations raises the question of whether similar transparency measures might also reduce concerns about its development of more capable rockets.