Iran's space programme - threat or paper tiger?

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Iran's space programme is small and occasionally successful. A highlight was the successful February 2009 orbiting of an Iranian-built satellite using its own Safir 2 rocket. A recent low point was the failed attempt in September 2011 to launch a Rhesus monkey aboard a suborbital sounding rocket. Not to be discouraged, Iran went on to cause a stir a few weeks later at the International Space Congress in Cape Town - simply by breaking its tradition of secrecy to have an exhibition stand.

Given regional politics, Iran's tetchy relationship with the international community and the secrecy shrouding its space efforts, it is also not surprising that neighbouring countries and established space players are hyper-alert to signs that the programme has military implications. However, do Iranian space ambitions actually pose a threat?

SATELLITES

Iran's space programme has its roots in 1958 as a founder member of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Space research since then has been sporadic, and the Iranian Space Agency was not formally founded until 2004.

Iranian interest in space was driven initially by telecommunications. During the Shah's rule, Iran was awarded three operating positions in the geostationary arc, and has since leased satellites from countries including Russia to maintain these reserved positions.

For a decade, Iran has planned to launch its own Zohreh (Venus) satellites to these positions but construction has been a stop-start affair. The latest delay was due to a decision by France and Germany not to supply computer and star sensor technology following concerns about Iranian nuclear and arms technology.

UN sanctions have also thwarted Iranian ambitions for low-Earth orbit communications and imaging satellites. One spacecraft was built in Italy but the government blocked delivery so Iran is now working on an indigenous satellite.

Iran has operated Russian-built satellites and launched observation satellites but given its military and diplomatic isolation, it has developed indigenous capabilities, launching Omid, a homegrown 27kg (60lb) satellite, in February 2009 with its own Safir 2 rocket from its launch site in the Semnan province of Iran. The satellite was officially retired six weeks later and re-entered the Earth's atmosphere in April 2009. A second satellite lasted for three weeks in June-July 2011.

LAUNCH VEHICLES

In launchers, Iranian ambitions are ostensibly for civilian purposes, although the world intelligence community doubts this.

The 22m (70ft) Safir launch vehicle, capable of putting 27kg into low-Earth orbit, is thought to be a two-stage liquid fuel launch vehicle based on the Shehab ballistic missile, which is itself based on North Korean Nodong/Scud missile technology.

The first attempt at orbital flight of the Safir ended in failure in August 2008. Second and third flights, in February 2009 and June 2011, successfully orbited satellites.

A larger rocket is now in development. The 27m Simorgh features a four-engine first stage and is reportedly capable of putting a 60kg payload into a 500-kilometer (310-mile) low-Earth orbit. The first Simorgh flight was at one stage scheduled for February 2011.

However, even this larger rocket is not deemed adequate. In 2009, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared Iran would build a launch vehicle to launch larger satellites to orbits between 700km and 1,500km - ideal for a sun-synchronous Earth observation orbit.

Iran also has its Kavoshgar suborbital sounding rocket system, again based on the liquid propellant Shehab. Kavoshgar is thought to be a two-stage liquid fuel rocket which can fire payloads up to 200km. It has flown five times since its February 2007 debut, but the last two flights were failures, including the September 2011 attempt to put a Rhesus monkey into space.

MANNED FLIGHT

All flights have been suspended while the failure is investigated. Once returned to service, Kavoshgar flights will continue, culminating in a manned suborbital spaceflight attempt.

The announcement of a 12-year manned flight programme in February 2009 surprised observers, but the first Iran-born astronaut has already flown. Anousheh Ansari, now a US citizen, flew into orbit as a paying space tourist aboard a Soyuz spacecraft.

Ansari and her family are perhaps better known as title sponsors of the $10 million Ansari X Prize for the first private manned spaceflight, awarded in 2004 to aeronautics pioneer Burt Rutan and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, whose project went on to form the technical basis for Virgin Galactic's suborbital tourism venture.

THREAT?

Iran is clearly not a threat to Western space domination yet, but while its orbital and suborbital liquid fuel rocket programmes are of passing interest to Western observers, the possibility Iran might be developing a large diameter solid rocket engine has raised alarm bells.

While solid rockets are not good launch vehicles in many ways, their quick launch capability and easy transportability make them excellent for use on long-range ballistic missile systems. Iran - which fired 77 Scud-class rockets in 1988 during the Iran-Iraq war, has already developed a 2,000km-range two-stage ballistic solid-fuel missile called Sejil-2, and may develop a longer-range solid rocket missile cable of carrying a nuclear warhead to northern Europe.