Monday, February 04, 2008

Iran Opens Space Center

By Cernig

Iran has joined the space race.
TEHRAN (AFP) - Iran on Monday fired a rocket into space to mark the opening of its first space centre, triggering swift condemnation from the United States amid continued tensions over the Iranian nuclear drive.

The space centre, located in the remote desert of western Iran, will be used to launch Iran's first home-produced satellite "Omid" (Hope) in May or June this year, officials said.

...The rocket launch is believed to be the second time Iran has tried to put an object into space after it claimed to have successfully fired a missile outside the atmosphere in February 2007.

State television broadcast pictures of the launch of the rocket, which is dubbed Kavoshgar-1 but bore a close resemblance to Iran's longer-range missile Shahab-3.

The Shahab-3 has a range of 1,300 to 1,600 kilometres (800 to 1,000 miles), enough to put Tehran's arch regional foe Israel and US bases in the Gulf within reach.

The new space centre includes an underground control centre and launchpad which will be used to fire Omid into space, followed by other planned satellites in the future, state media said.

...Iran has been pursuing a space programme for several years, and in October 2005 a Russian-made Iranian satellite was put into orbit by a Russian rocket.

But Omid would be Iran's first domestically manufactured probe and the first to be launched from Iranian territory.

The rocket blasted off after a countdown to cries of "Allahu Akbar!" (God is Greatest), from the space centre in a desert region in the northern Semnan province, state television showed.

The pictures showed the rocket heading towards space but no information was given on what height it reached. A small probe was seen falling back to earth under a parachute but it was not clear what this contained.

State media said the rocket was a sounding probe sent to conduct experiments to pave the way for the launch of the Omid satellite.

Defence Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar was quoted as saying by the Fars news agency that the satellite would be launched in the Iranian month of Khordad, which begins on May 21.

The Russian-launched satellite Sina-1 was Iran's first -- and so far only -- probe to be launched into space, and was described by the Iranian press at the time as being for research and telecommunications.

Iran has said it plans to construct and launch several more satellites over the next three years.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino put a decidedly negative cast on the launch: ""I saw this morning that Iran, again, tested a ballistic missile. It's unfortunate that they continue to do that because it further isolates the country from the rest of the world," she said.

Which really is the problem with such dual-use technology. Whether satellite launching systems and uranium enrichment facilities represent actual threats or not depends entirely on the intent of the users and Iran has been consistently demonised as not having the best of intent. Yet the IAEA has said that there is no way that the current Iranian enrichment plant or its product can be diverted to military use without their knowledge. The IAEA has said that Iran's answers to their questions bear out the recent American NIE that said Iran no longer has a nuclear weapons program.

And it seems as if this Space Center is another peaceful use for what was originally tagged as a military missile testing site. Jeffrey Lewis a few days ago posted a satellite picture of a facility near Tabriz, in NorthWestern Iran which may well be the Space Center.

This facility was originally tagged as a military site by the neoconservatives favorite terrorists, the MEK.

Can you imagine if every satellite launch by the US, Japan or Europe was similarly described as a ballistic missile launch? Technically, they are. But intent doesn't lie in the mind of the beholder.

Update Ok, here's interesting. Regular reader Amir who runs the Nuclear Iran blog says in comments that the missile was launched from "a point near Semnan, in central Iran" rather than Western Iran. Did the Western press get the location wrong? In which case the picturted facility above is definitely of another probable silo-launched missile facility. We're back to wondering about intent. Is the pictured facility military or part of Iran's space race?

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