Iran Launched Its First Military Satellite
Matthew Greenwood posted on July 29, 2020 |
It’s a big step in the country’s technological capacity—and a source of worry around the world.

Iran has successfully launched its first-ever military satellite—the latest sign that the country has big ambitions for its aerospace program. It’s the first successful launch, after a series of failures in efforts to get an Iranian satellite into orbit.

Here is what we know about the hardware involved in this surprising launch.

Qased Launcher

Iran launched the Nour on its Qased multi-stage rocket. The first stage ignited for about 100 seconds. It is based a on liquid-fueled medium-range ballistic missile called the Ghadr, but without the warhead. The Ghadr is a variant of Iran’s Shahab 3 rocket, which itself is based on the North Korean Nodong rocket. Iran has used these rockets in the past for its satellite launch vehicles. Iranian officials have stated that the liquid-propellant Ghadr will be replaced by a solid-propellant first stage for future satellite launches.

The second stage appears to be a new technology for the country. It uses a solid-fueled motor named the Salman, only recently unveiled by Iran’s military. The compact Salman, which weighs about 4,200 pounds, uses a lightweight composite fiber motor casing and can control the thrust vector with a swiveling nozzle. The second stage accelerated for about 60 seconds.

Little is known about the Qased’s third stage. Analysts believe it may be a small solid-fueled rocket, but it’s unclear if it is an existing Iranian rocket or if the military has created a new one. A potential candidate would be a military equivalent to the Arash-24 motor developed by Iran’s civilian space agency.

Nour-1 Satellite

Iran has not released any details about the Nour-1 spacecraft. U.S. military satellite trackers have confirmed that the Nour-1 orbits the Earth at 264 miles above the surface, circling the planet every 90 minutes.

The Nour-1 is believed to be a six-unit CubeSat weighing between 13 and 22 pounds (although the U.S. Space Force classifies it as a three-unit CubeSat). Iran claims it is entirely homegrown Iranian technology, having been developed and manufactured domestically.

Being a military satellite, it’s no surprise that its main purpose will be reconnaissance—giving Iran’s Revolutionary Guard an eye in the sky that can monitor the many U.S. bases near Iran as well as troop movements by the U.S. and its allies in the region.

However, the satellite is also likely smaller than many other high-resolution earth imaging satellites—and its capabilities are likely to suffer as a result. The Nour-1 is probably limited to a low resolution of tens of meters, meaning that it will miss out on crucial details about adversarial military force deployments. In fact, the U.S. Space Force’s General Jay Raymond described it as “a tumbling webcam in space; unlikely providing intel.”

It’s possible that the Nour-1 is as much a technology demonstrator as it is a satellite—giving the country invaluable data on its performance as Iran develops more sophisticated satellites down the road. Iran has already hinted that it will launch a second satellite, the Nour 2, sometime soon.

Geopolitical Tensions Just Got Worse

The U.S. raised alarms over the launch, claiming that Iran is using technologies that could very easily be used in long-range ballistic missiles. In fact, solid propellant technologies are an important component in military missiles. And Iran’s secrecy over its aerospace program doesn’t inspire trust among global powers.

Fabian Hinz, a researcher at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies who follows the Iran space program, said, “the newly developed solid propellant motor that was used is very sophisticated and uses some technologies that are crucial to developing long-range missiles.” In particular, the new second stage incorporates the kinds of core technologies that long-range missiles use today.

However, Iran has claimed that its aerospace program is peaceful and that it complies with United Nations restrictions. Some analysts agree, pointing out that the Qased would be optimized for satellite launches into low earth orbit—and would require significant modifications to be converted into a weapon. “This is not a viable platform to use a ballistic missile,” said Michael Elleman, director at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “It’s large, it’s unwieldy, and it doesn’t add any capability to what they already have.”

While Iranian satellite and launch technologies may still lag behind their Western competitors in terms of sophistication, the launch of the Qased and Nour-1 represent important milestones for the country’s fledgling aerospace sector. “All parts of the satellite, including the carrier, have been produced by Iranian scientists despite the U.S. sanctions,” said Major General Hossein Salami, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

It’s clear that the country has ambitions to be an increasingly influential aerospace player, and the Iranian military will undoubtedly try to learn from its first successful satellite launch as it plans for future developments.

Iran has already made a name for itself punching above its weight when it comes to skirmishes with more technologically advanced adversaries. Read more about Iran’s military aerospace feats at Iran's Home-Grown Missile System Downs U.S. Military's Most Advanced Drone.

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