By Samuel M. Hickey
On April 22, 2020, Iran successfully launched its first military satellite Noor-1 (“light”) into low-earth orbit and simultaneously announced its parallel military space program run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s Corps (IRGC). Noor was carried by a three-stage Qassed (“messenger”) space-launch vehicle (SLV) and the military satellite is believed to be orbiting the earth at an altitude of about 440 kilometers (km). The success of the launch earned Noor a “code designator” by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). All previous efforts to launch a satellite into space have been run by the Iranian Space Agency, in coordination with the Ministry of Defense, so this launch represents a major deviation.
The Iranian space program has been the subject of scrutiny since the mid-2000s. Since February 2008, Iran has attempted 13 space launches, four of which managed to put Iranian satellites into orbit for a short time. Observers are worried these launches could be used as a cover for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) development program. While no evidence points to such a program, the ability to successfully launch an SLV could demonstrate the technical competency to build a long-range missile.
Based on this latest launch, it is clear that the IRGC’s program incorporates some new features that would also be needed for longer-range missiles, like an ICBM. However, there are a lot of other challenges involved in the development of an advanced long-range ballistic missile program. For example, Iran must create a re-entry vehicle that can survive the hypersonic flow of air over its surface as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere and further perfect their prompt-launch capabilities in order to avoid pre-launch strikes. Further, SLVs and ballistic missiles employ different trajectories and climb at different rates to achieve their respective goals. That means successful technical configurations for an SLV do not necessarily translate over to ICBM work.
It is important to keep watching these types of launches, but if Iran is trying to develop the technology for an ICBM under the guise of a space program, it has a long way to go.
What is new about Iran’s launch of a military satellite?
- Iran has successfully incorporated a solid fuel motor. The Qassed is a three-stage SLV and the second-stage solid-propellant Salman motor marks a major technical achievement. Current American ICBMs are solid-fueled, because they need to stand ready to launch for long periods of time. At the moment, the Qassed is not powerful enough to carry a warhead over a long distance, although the carbon-fiber casing is much lighter than the traditional steel motor casing. To increase its range and payload, the rocket would need a greater diameter. However, experts note that it is very difficult to make large-diameter solid rocket motors, so further technical improvement to the Qassed will be challenging.
- The Noor military satellite was launched from a mobile launcher. Previously, Iran’s space program only operated the Safir (“Envoy”) and the Simorgh (“Phoenix”) SLVs, which are both liquid-fueled, two-stage rockets. These rockets took days, if not weeks, to prepare for launch as the SLV had to be trucked to the launch site and the fuel loaded on while it sat out in the open, making it an easy target for a pre-launch strike. A civilian space program is less concerned about a pre-launch strike, but a military program would view a mobile launcher as a game changer.
- The launch was conducted by the IRGC, not the Iranian Space Agency. Iran has previously confirmed the existence of a parallel space program run by the IRGC, but never with a launch. It is also clear that the parallel program was in charge of the development of the solid-propellant motor, which is the major accomplishment. However, this does not mean Iran now has the ability or desire to build ICBMs. Leaders in Tehran still maintain that Iran has a 2,000-km self-imposed range limit on their missiles.
- The development of a flexible nozzle for thrust vector control or steering. Iran can now adjust the angle of the thrust midflight as proven by video of the solid-propellant Salman motor. This suggests that Iran has perfected a swiveling nozzle that allows them to steer a ballistic missile once it leaves the atmosphere. This technical achievement is a critical to modern ICBM development.
Secretary Pompeo said the launch violated UNSCR 2231
“Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology, until the date eight years after the JCPOA Adoption Day or until the date on which the IAEA submits a report confirming the Broader Conclusion, whichever is earlier.”
This is not the first time he has made this claim. In January 2019, Secretary Pompeo tweeted “In defiance of the international community & UNSCR 2231, Iran’s regime fired off a space launch vehicle today. The launch yet again shows that Iran is pursuing enhanced missile capabilities that threaten Europe and the Middle East.” This was in response to Iran’s failed attempted to lift a satellite into orbit using a Simorgh rocket on January 15, 2019. The U.S. Department of State sanctioned the Iranian Space Agency and two if its research institutes on September 3, 2020, three days after a failed launch of the Safir rocket.
What does the rest of the world think?
- On April 24, 2020, the United Kingdom warned that, “Reports that Iran has carried out a satellite launch – using ballistic missile technology – are of significant concern and inconsistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2231.”
- On April 23, 2020, France condemned Iran’s launch of a military satellite into orbit, saying it was in contravention of Resolution 2231.
- On April 22, 2020, Germany warned that “the Iranian rocket program has a destabilizing effect on the region and is also unacceptable in view of our European security interests.” However, Germany did not go so far as to say the launch was in contravention of Resolution 2231.
- On April 24, 2020, Russia stood by Iran arguing, “neither the resolution itself, nor the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear program in any way limits Tehran’s rights and capabilities in terms of space exploration and development of relevant national programs.”
- China has yet to comment publicly on the matter.
How dangerous is this new capability?
The commander of U.S. Space Command Gen. John Raymond on April 25 tweeted that “Iran states it has imaging capabilities — actually, it’s a tumbling webcam in space; unlikely providing intel.” However, the Iranian government has noted that it would take 10 days for them to stabilize the satellite and activate the imaging sensor, so the exact imaging capabilities of the satellite remain largely unknown. U.S. Space Command identified the satellite as a 3U Cubesat for space research, which has a mass of 4 kilograms (kg), while some experts believe it is a 6U Cubesat, which has a mass of 12 kg, so the estimated size is in contention.
The Qassed is three-stage SLV and the first stage uses a Ghadr liquid-fueled rocket, which is the name associated with efforts to extend the range of the Shahab 3 rocket. The Shahab 3 has an estimated range of 800-1,000 km and the missile is reportedly both road-mobile and silo-based. The second stage is a solid-propellant Salman motor and Iran has made clear that they intend to use a solid-fueled rocket for the first stage, as well. Little is known about the third-stage kick motor at this time.