Iran improving its rockets ten years after its first satellite launch

by William Graham

On 2 February 2009 the Islamic Republic of Iran made its first satellite launch, using a Safir rocket to deploy a small satellite, Omid. Ten years later Iran is boastful about plans for the future of its space program as it begins to mature, with new rockets entering service and new satellites preparing to launch.

The February 2009 launch of Omid, whose name means “Hope” in Farsi, saw Iran become the ninth sovereign nation to place a satellite into orbit using a rocket of their own development.

Omid was not Iran’s first satellite: Sina-1 was launched three and a half years earlier, however this spacecraft was constructed by Russia’s NPO Polyot and it flew to orbit atop a Kosmos-3M rocket from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, rather than using an Iranian vehicle. With Omid, Iran demonstrated its self-reliance: building much of the satellite and performing the launch itself.

This self-reliance has proven importance for Iran’s space program, providing access to space at a time when political pressures and sanctions have made it difficult for Iran to find international partners for its efforts. The West, for its part, has often characterized Iran’s space ambitions as cover to develop and improve its missiles.

Iran’s successful launch of Omid likely came at the second attempt. In August 2008 it was reported that Iran’s first satellite launch was imminent, with the “Safir Omid” mission lifting off on 17 August. Immediately after the launch, Iran claimed that the Omid satellite had been placed into orbit, later revising this to an inert demonstration payload, and finally to a suborbital test after Western observers confirmed no new objects had been found in orbit.

In reality, the August 2008 launch was probably Iran’s first attempt to orbit its satellite. In the days that followed the media cited unnamed US military officials who claimed – from data collected by Defense Support System (DSP) satellites used to track missile launches and from naval assets in the area – that the rocket had gone off course shortly after its first stage separated.

Whether the 2008 launch was a successful test, unsuccessful test, or a failed attempt to launch Omid, within six months Iran’s first indigenously-launched satellite was in orbit. Another Safir rocket lifted off at 22:04 local time (18:34 UTC) on 2 February 2009 – a date chosen to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution – and deployed Omid into low Earth orbit a few minutes later.

Omid itself was a fairly simple satellite, incorporating an ultra high frequency (UHF) store-and-forward communications payload within a 40-centimeter (16-inch) cubic structure. The satellite had a mass of about 27 kilograms (60 pounds). It remained in orbit for a little under three months, reentering Earth’s atmosphere on 25 April.

Since Omid, Iran has placed three more satellites into orbit. The first of these, Rasad, carried an Earth observation payload which returned images of the planet from space. Another imaging satellite, Navid, launched on 3 February 2012.

Iran’s next satellite would be Fajr, a 50-kilogram (110-pound) spacecraft which was to test new systems and components including a cold-gas propulsion system. While Iran reported that Fajr was ready for launch in 2012, the satellite was finally deployed on 2 February 2015. In the intervening time, Western analysts identified several likely failed launch attempts that were neither announced nor acknowledged by Iran.

A DigitalGlobe image of structures at the Semnan launch complex

In late May and September 2012, activity was seen in satellite photographs of Iran’s Semnan Province launch site, alongside announcements that Fajr would be launched in the coming days.

Scorch marks were then observed at the launch pad – indicative that a launch had taken place – however no satellite was found in orbit and the Fajr launch was subsequently “delayed”. A third failure, in mid-February 2013, has also been speculated however less evidence is available.

After reaching orbit in 2015, Fajr quickly decayed and reentered on 26 February – less than 24 days after its launch. This rapid decay from orbit, in contrast to an expected mission duration of up to 18 months, points at the possible failure of the experimental propulsion system to circularise the satellite’s orbit.

The Omid, Rasad, Navid and Fajr launches all used the Safir rocket. This is a development of the Shahab-3 ballistic missile which was itself derived from a North Korean missile that was, in turn, an evolution of a former Soviet design.

Many details of the rocket are not well known in the west, however Safir is understood to use two liquid-fuelled stages, possibly with a small solid-fuelled third stage for some flights. Overall it measures about 22 meters (72 feet) in length, with a diameter of 1.25 meters (4.5 feet).

Shahab-3 is Iran’s version of the Hwasong-7 missile, part of a group of missiles known in the west as Scuds, after the NATO codename for the Soviet rockets to which they trace their ancestry. Hwasong-7 was developed by North Korea, with Iranian assistance, as longer-range versions of existing North Korean missiles – which were reverse-engineered versions of the Soviet R-17 Elbrus missile.

Iran’s Shahab-3 – via AP/ISNA/Ruhollah Vahdati

The R-17 itself was a product of Viktor Makeyev’s SKB-385 design bureau, first flown in 1961 as an improved version of the earlier R-11, or Zemlya. A short-range tactical ballistic missile, it was capable of carrying a nuclear warhead but in service across the Middle East it has typically been armed with conventional explosives. Soviet-aligned countries acquired missiles during the Cold War, with some – such as Iran and North Korea – later building their own copies or improved versions like the Shahab.

For its first launches, Safir retained the hypergolic propellant combination of its missile predecessors, unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) oxidized by AK-27S. The latter is a mixture of dinitrogen tetroxide and inhibited red fuming nitric acid in a ratio of 27:73, which was replaced with pure dinitrogen tetroxide from the Rasad launch onwards. Beginning with the Navid launch, the rocket’s first stage was also stretched slightly, allowing it to carry more fuel.

Despite these improvements, Safir’s payload capacity remains too low for Iran to begin launching the larger satellites it will require as the country moves forward with its space program.

A new three-stage rocket, Simorgh – meaning Phoenix – was announced just a year after Omid’s launch. This larger vehicle bears visual similarity to the Unha rocket, which North Korea used to launch its first satellite in December 2012, and Western analysts believe that the countries most likely collaborated on the two projects.

The larger Simorgh first flew in April 2016, making what is widely believed to have been a successful suborbital test. A second launch took place the following July. It remains unclear whether this second launch was another suborbital test, or a failed attempt to launch a satellite.

The Simorgh rocket – via IRNA

Simorgh’s third launch occurred last month, lifting off at 04:00 local time (00:30 UTC) on 15 January with the Payam-e Amirkabir, or AUTSAT-1, satellite aboard. Simorgh failed during third stage flight, and was unable to achieve orbit, however for the first time Iran acknowledged the failure, instead of keeping the launch secret or announcing a suborbital test as they had with previous unsuccessful attempts. A replacement for Payam is expected to be ready for launch by the end of the year.

Prior to the Payam launch, satellite images of the Imam Khomeini Space Centre in Iran’s Semnan Province showed rockets undergoing integration at both of the facility’s launch pads.

Simorgh has its own launch complex at Semnan, with the other pad serving Safir, which suggests that Iran will make another launch in the near future. Its payload is believed to be Dousti – meaning “Friendship” – a 50-kilogram (110 lb) Earth observation satellite with an imaging resolution of up to 30 meters (98 feet). Built by the Sharif University of Technology, Dousti’s purpose is stated to be one of monitoring vegetation and marine resources.

Another satellite, Nahid (“Venus”) has also been speculated as a possible payload for the upcoming Safir launch.

While Iran has not yet announced the launch, much less confirmed a date, a liftoff in early February would celebrate both the tenth anniversary of Omid’s launch, and forty years since the Islamic Revolution.

Beyond its upcoming launch, Iran has many more satellites that it has announced, but not yet placed into orbit. Ambitions for a human spaceflight program have also been shown, including the demonstration of a mockup capsule, however this project since appears to have been put on hold.

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