After a series of attempts last year ended in failure, Iran said Wednesday it had launched its first military satellite into orbit. Image: IRIB News Agency

Iran’s “Noor” (Messenger) military satellite likely did not reach orbit. The United States Air Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron said it had “tracked 2 objects, NOUR 01 (Sat Catalog No. 45529), QASED Rocket Body (45530) from a space launch originating in Iran.” The Squadron, part of the new US Space Command, did not report that the satellite reached orbit.

The US has extensive space tracking capabilities. These include sophisticated radars, a system called “Space Fence” designed to provide space situational awareness, and electro-optical surveillance systems. In addition, the US has space tracking agreements with  Australia, Japan, Italy, Canada, France, the South Korea and the United Kingdom. It also has agreements with the European Space Agency and Europe’s Eumetsat weather satellite organization.

The US also is capable of detecting the launch of ballistic missiles through its Space Based Infrared System (SBIR). This is a constellation of geosynchronous and polar orbiting satellites that includes four geostationary satellites, two hosted payloads on satellites in highly elliptical orbits, and mobile ground stations.  The SBIR, built by Lockheed (latest version fully operational since 2018) is run by a mission control station of the 460th Space Wing at Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado. The 460th is part of the US Space Command.

The Iranian launch did not take place at an established launch site. Instead the Revolutionary Guard took the rocket and all the supporting supplies and equipment to Iran’s central desert at an unnamed Guard base near Shahroud, Iran, some 330 km northeast of Tehran. It is not known whether the United States, which has extensive optical and infrared satellite coverage coverage over Iran, tracked the movement of the missile and equipment to the base near Shahroud. Iran’s previous failed launches were covered by both government and privately owned overhead satellite cameras, and the launch sites were easily located and damage at the sites was publicized. It would appear that Iran decided to move its launch site to avoid unfavorable publicity if the rocket failed on blast off. 

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard claims that the Shahroud launch was from a mobile launcher, although the photograph of the rocket lifting off does not show a launch platform. Missiles of this type are usually launched from a TEL (Transporter, Erector, Launcher).  A photo showing writing on the missile may also be photo-shopped, so nothing certain can be said about the missile, other than the very limited information provided by Iran.  

Iran claims the missile combined liquid- and solid-fueled rocket components.  It may well be that the first and second stages of the rocket were liquid-fueled and the third stage was a solid-fueled rocket whose purpose was to push the satellite into orbit.  

On February 5, 2019, an attempt was made by Iran to launch a communications satellite from the Imam Khomeini Space Center.  As the Iranians reported: “Stage-1 and stage-2 motors of the carrier functioned properly and the satellite was successfully detached from its carrier, but at the end of its path it did not reach the required speed for being put in the orbit.”  The rocket booster was the Simorgh B and the payload, a satellite, weighed around 350 kg.  The objective was to put a communications satellite in low earth orbit of about 500 km. The Revolutionary Guard’s claim is that the Noor satellite reached an orbit of 425 km in low earth orbit. Despite a new name being put on the rocket launch vehicle, Qased, it is probable that the Qased and the Simorgh B are one and the same.

It is important to note this is the first time Iran’s excuses about only carrying out civilian space projects has been jettisoned in favor of demonstrating openly a military capability, and violating the spirit of UN prohibitions to boot.

The Simorgh, and likely the Qased, have their origin in North Korea. According to a paper released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, “During the US-Iranian nuclear negotiations, US intelligence agencies reportedly observed at least two shipments of rocket components transferred from North Korea to Iran, including large diameter rocket engines. The US intelligence community also believes, according to media reports, North Korea gave Iran, ‘design data, stage separation technology, and booster equipment for the Simorgh.'”

The North Korean ICBM, called Hwasong 14 – likely the basis of the Simorgh/Qased – is actually based on the old Soviet RD-250 (R-36 missile) family of engines. North Korea received between 20 to 40 RD-251 engines from Russia in 2016 or from Ukraine from an old Soviet factory there. As the supply from Ukraine is no more, it follows that North Korea or Iran, or both, would have to copy the engine and manufacture their own in future.

If a satellite goes into orbit, its orbit is usually immediately reported. The Union of Concerned Scientists offers a satellite database of some 2,218 satellites in orbit including military satellites – the database is updated three times a year (last updated December 16, 2019). There are also online tracking services including SatflareNTYO and among others. It will be interesting to see if the Noor satellite appears in any of these publications.

Concern in the United States, Europe, Israel and elsewhere is that Iran is using its satellite launch activities to develop a credible ICBM capability that could threaten Europe and the United States. No one knows how far along Iran is on developing nuclear weapons small enough to fit on top of long-range rockets. But North Korea already says it has already done so, and many are taking that threat seriously. Taking into account the extensive cooperation between Tehran and Pyongyang, including the possible sharing of mobile launch platforms, Iran and North Korea will pose a a nuclear ICBM threat in the near future.