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Iran readies Safir launch with ICBM implications

Posted: October 18, 2009

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U.S. reconnaissance spacecraft are watching Iran's Semnan launch site for evidence that Iran is readying launch of its second satellite on a Safir-2 booster. The mission to launch the Mesbah communications satellite is designed as much to test the long range ballistic missile capabilities of the booster as it is to perform a space mission.

The flight, depending upon its success and timing, could have an impact on new U.S. diplomatic overtures to Iran and opposition in Congress against the Obama Administration's revised missile defense strategy.

Iranian Safir-2 rocket is readied before liftoff of Iran's first domestically launched satellite last February. A second space launch is being readied on a flight that also has ICBM implications as the U.S. and Iran open new talks. Credit: ITAA
Since mid summer Iran has signaled readiness for the Safir launch by showing television views of booster integration at a launch site hanger. Although Iran has not announced a target launch date for the mission, Iranian news agencies raised the coming launch as it also prepared to go into nuclear program talks discussions with U.S. diplomats in Geneva starting the week of Oct. 19.

A successful Safir mission could also raise concerns in Congress among Republicans who believe President Obama acted wrongly by reducing Missile Defense Agency facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic against Iranian Safir type missiles that could eventually have the capability to strike the U.S. directly. Obama instead increased work for defense against intermediate range Iranian missiles that could strike Europe and the Middle East, leaving defense work against Safir type ICBMs for later.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama's 2008 opponent, called that decision "seriously misguided" and a near term Safir-2 success at the time new nuclear talks with Iran are also beginning would strengthen Republican opposition to Obama's initiatives.

First and second stages of Safir-2 highlight second stage that uses composite structure to save weight important for both space and ICBM missions. Credit: ITAA
The renewed Iranian media emphasis on a launch also comes just as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met in Moscow with her Russian counterparts who declined to stiffen sanctions against Tehran. The Russians, have, however, declined to provide Iran any additional assistance for what Iran says is a totally civilian space program.

"The real advancement of Safir-2 lies in its second stage with its the light-weight composite design, clam shell fairings and launch-ready storable liquid propellants that are a significant advancement for military missiles," according to Ameer Alam, a Boeing engineer who is also an expert on Iranian systems.

Iran has also just announced that it intends to begin sending research animals into space in 2010-11, first on Shahab ballistic missiles flying as sounding rockets that can reach 100 mi. altitude.

This will be followed by orbital missions on the Safir with animals as a prelude to a manned Islamic space program by about 2021, says Iran's Minister of Communications, Reza Taqipour.

Development of a heavier class Safir or larger booster under the guise of a civilian manned space program will have major implications for the use of the same rocket systems for heavier longer range Iranian ballistic missiles, just as the U.S. and former Soviet Union used their early ballistic missiles as manned boosters. By man-rating the Atlas, Titan and R-7 ballistic missiles, the U.S. and USSR were also able to increase the reliability of those rocket systems for use as ICBMs.

"We have a clear outline of the plans, but at the same time we are aware that implementing our plans depend on a broad national participation," Taqipour told the Iranian Mehrnews news agency earlier this month. "In accordance with a program that we have developed, by 2021 Iran is to become the leading space power in the region," he said. That "region" also includes Israel that already has a formidable military space program.

"Iran is preparing the 132 lb. cube shaped Mesbah [Lantern] communications research satellite for the launch from the Semnan Range southeast of Semnan Iran," says Charles P. Vick, senior technical analyst at

Iran's next Safir payload will be the Mesbah store-and-forward communications satellite developed under an $11million cooperative program with the Carlo Gavazzi Space Co. in Milan, Italy. Credit: Persianstar
"For several weeks now Iranian TV has been displaying patriotic satellite tapes and news programs as a public build up to the flight," Vick says.

Iran says the Safir can launch payloads of more than 140 lb. into orbit, not including the several hundred pound depleted second stage that also goes into orbit as part of a Safir launch.

Iran's first indigenously launched satellite designated Omid was fired into orbit Feb. 3 on board a Safir booster fired from Semnan after at least one prior failure to orbit a satellite. The small Omid satellite reentered the atmosphere and burned up in April after a communications test mission.

A booster like the 72 ft. Safir that is capable of placing even a small satellite into space is also capable of launching heavier nuclear, chemical, biological or conventional weapons intercontinental distances. The fact the Iranian rocket's second stage and other systems were developed in cooperation with North Korea, further elevates concern over use of the technology by both Iran and North Korea.

If Iran's second mission is successful, the U.S. response is likely to be similar to that after the Omid launch eight months ago. The U.S. and its allies sharply condemned the Feb. 3 flight. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the flight was an "acute concern" to the Obama Administration

Geoff Morrell, Pentagon spokesman and an assistant secretary of defense, said the launch of the Omid mission is "certainly a reason for us to be concerned about Iran and its continued attempts to develop a ballistic missile program of increasingly long range. The flight demonstrated that Iran is a real threat and a growing threat," he said.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier also expressed concern saying the Omid mission was "an alarming development and an unsettling sign of Iran's progress in [missile] technology.

Twin nozzle second stage engine for Safir is powered by storable propellants carried in composite structure. Credit: ITAA
In spite of those concerns raised in February, President Obama six months later changed key elements of the U.S. missile defense strategy to place less emphasis on defending against long range vehicles like the Safir.

He instead ordered the Missile Defense Agency place more emphasis on ship based defenses that could protect Europe, Israel and other areas of the Middle East from intermediate range Iranian missiles like the Shahab-3. Iran has tested the Shahab-3 many times, including with conventional warheads. Analysts believe, however, they have detected shapes in the Shahab nose which indicate it could carry the electronic bus that would also be needed for any atomic warhead integrated with the vehicle.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) was also critical of the Obama missile defense changes. "It shows a willful determination to continue ignoring the threat posed by some of the most dangerous regimes in the world, while taking one of most important defenses against Iran off the table," he said.

No matter what the new U.S. missile defense plan, the launch of the Mesbah satellite will provide more data on the pace of the long range ICBM program which the Obama Administration says it will begin to prepare defenses against as its maturity increases.

"By using advanced fuel or lighter structures, if Safir-2 launched the satellite in two stages then Iran has gone beyond Scud technology and has leapfrogged the North Koreans in their mastery of missile technology," Alam at Boeing says. "The April 5, 2009 North Korean launch failure confirms the Iranian superiority when the three-stage Taepodong-2 from vehicle failed to deliver a satellite to orbit," says Alam in his assessment.

An Iranian government video broadcast on Iran's state television reveals substantially more detail on the Safir including details of its first and second stage engine systems, especially the twin nozzle second stage believed to be a North Korean design. The new Iranian Safir pictures revel as much about the Iran booster as do, for example, much more routinely available images of vehicles like the U.S. Delta open to the public for decades.

In the images the first stage Safir engine appears identical to a Soviet Scud rocket engine system, which itself is a direct derivation of the German V-2 propulsion system.

The Safir vehicle is transported to the pad fully integrated by laying at about a 30 deg. elevation on a handling trailer also used to elevate the rocket into the pad's fixed service structure. That structure has a tent-like "clean room" at the top for access to the satellite payload.

Iranian satellite is mounted on nose of Safir-2 launcher for integration tests before transport to launch pad. Satellite shown here is different from Mesbah being launched soon. Credit: ITAA
Another image from the video shows the model of a satellite attached to the nose of the upper stage in its processing hanger. The satellite shown is not the planned Mesbah spacecraft planned for the next launch but rather a multifaceted ball shaped design.

The Mesbah is a rectangular box structure lightsat 50 cm. on a side with solar arrays on all sides. It is about 2 ft. in length and sprouts several antennas to maintain communications no matter which angle the vehicle is pointed. At least two Mesbah versions have been built in cooperation with Italy's Carlo Gavazzi Space company. The project cost about $11.3 million. The first Mesbah was destroyed in a 2005 launch accident.

The satellite has a gravity gradient passive attitude control system and is designed to fly in about a 185 mi. orbit inclined 55.5 deg. It will be used for simple communications tests between dispersed communications trucks that will be moved around Iran as well as up to 1,000 fixed sites.

Once launched the major news impact of the mission will be the performance of the Safir and that's relationship to ICBM development. The Mesbah spacecraft is designed as much as a trainer for aspiring Iranian satellite technicians as it is a useable satellite.