Iran's New Satellite Capability

June 17, 2011

Michael Elleman

         As part of an ambitious plan to expand its space program, Iran claims to have launched its own satellite into orbit on June 15. It is the second satellite the Islamic republic has put into space.
         The new 15.3kg satellite, dubbed the Rasad-1 (Observation-1), is designed to take pictures of the earth's surface, monitor damage from earthquakes, floods and other national disasters. The new satellite, assembled by Malik-Ashtar University, will have limited military value because its camera cannot identify objects smaller than 150 meters across. The earth observation satellite was launched using the two-stage Safir-1B (Ambassador-1B) carrier rocket.
  • Does yesterday's launch represent a new capability for Iran?
No, this was Tehran's third space launch. The first attempt in 2008 failed. Six months later, in February 2009, the Omid (Messenger) experimental satellite was launched atop a two-stage Safir rocket. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad originally announced plans for the third launch in March, but it was delayed. No explanation for the three-month delay was provided.
The Safir-1B is not a new system, but its second successful mission in only three tries, suggests that engineers at the Iranian Aerospace Organization (IAO) are accumulating significant technical wherewithal that will certainly aid future space launcher and ballistic missile developments.
The Safir and Safir-1B appear to be the same vehicle, although it is reasonable to conclude that some modifications were incorporated to enhance reliability and performance. The launcher's first-stage is a stretched version of Iran's Ghadr-1 ballistic missile, minus the warhead section. The added length, about 3.5 meters, allows the first-stage to carry and extra 5,000 kilograms of propellant. The second-stage is powered by a pair of low-thrust engines very similar to those used by either the Soviet R-27, submarine-launched missile, or the ROTA, a land-based missile developed by Russia's Makeyev Design Bureau in mid-1960s. The ROTA missile was never fielded.
  • Is a space launch in violation of U.N. Resolution 1929?
Paragraph 9 of Resolution 1929 stipulates "that Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology..." The wording suggests that space launchers that employ key components found in Iran's ballistic missiles are proscribed. Because the Safir-1B uses the same engine as the Ghadr-1 medium-range ballistic missile, Iran is likely to be in violation of the U.N. resolution.
But this may be a moot point, as Iran has conducted flight-tests of the Ghadr-1, the two-stage solid-propellant Sajjil-2, and the short-range Qiam, a modified Scud-B missile, since the passage of Resolution 1929.   However, in possible deference to the resolution or public opinion, Tehran did not advertise the Ghadr-1 or Sajjil-2 tests.
  • Have U.N. sanctions slowed Iran's quest for longer range ballistic missiles?
Possibly. There is no evidence to suggest that Iran's missile development efforts have been harmed or slowed by international sanctions. U.N. reports state that Iran is still able to import missile technology and components from North Korea, although the flow may have been reduced. But the interception of key solid-propellant ingredients headed to Iran, such as aluminium powder, is likely to slow the pace of the Sajjil-2 missile development effort. Longer range systems based on larger solid-propellant motors will almost certainly be affected by supplier disruptions.
  • Can the Safir-1B launcher be converted into a ballistic missile?
The Safir-1B, like the earlier Safir, is designed for space launches. Its slow, steady acceleration and light-weight construction is optimized for inserting a satellite into orbit. But like most satellite launchers, the Safir systems could in theory be converted for use as a ballistic missile. Significant modifications and a flight-test program to validate reliability and performance would be required, however.
For example, the Safir is designed to carry a very small payload, many times lighter than any useful warhead, whether nuclear or conventional. The low-thrust engines of the Safir's second-stage would have to be replaced with more powerful ones. Structural reinforcements to accommodate a heavier payload would also be required; the added weight of the heavier payload and the reinforcements would rob the hypothetical missile of range.

These modifications are certainly within Iran's capabilities. The resulting ballistic missile would have a range of roughly 2100km when armed with a 750kg warhead. But such a capability would not enhance Iran's strategic reach, since the solid-propellant Sajjil-2 missile has an equivalent performance envelope, and is already under development and flight-testing. Moreover, the Sajjil-2 is designed specifically as a military missile. The Sajjil would be a superior choice on almost all accounts. It would therefore be surprising to see Iran convert the Safir launcher for use as a ballistic missile

Read Michael Elleman's chapter on Iran's missile program in "The Iran Primer"

Michael Elleman, senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former U.N. weapons inspector, is co-author of “Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment.”
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