Satellite photos show Iran had another failed space launch

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran has likely suffered another failed launch of a rocket carrying a satellite as it tries to reinvigorate a program criticized by the West, even as Tehran faces negotiations last-minute deal with world powers to salvage his tattered nuclear deal in Vienna.

On Sunday, satellite images from Maxar Technologies seen by The Associated Press show burn marks on a launch pad at the Imam Khomeini spaceport in Iran’s rural Semnan province. A rocket stand on the pad appears burnt and damaged, with vehicles surrounding it. An object, possibly part of the gate, is nearby.

Successful launches generally do not damage rocket gantries because they are lowered before liftoff. Iran also usually immediately emits trumpets that reach into space on its public television channels, and it has a habit of not acknowledging failed attempts.

Separate images from Planet Labs PBC suggest the attempted launch likely took place sometime after Friday. Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment.

U.S. Army Space Command did not detect a launch over the weekend, said Army Lt. Col. César Santiago, a Pentagon spokesman. This suggests that the rocket never left the launch pad.

The rocket involved appears to have been Iran’s Zuljanah satellite launcher, said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies who first noticed the launch attempt with colleagues.

The apparently damaged gantry resembled one that had already been used in last year’s successful launch of a Zuljanahnamed after a horse of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and key figure in the Shia faith who was massacred with his fighters in Karbala in the 7th century.

It is still unclear what could have caused the explosion. The first two stages of a Zuljanah are solid fuel, but its final stage is liquid and should have been fueled at the launch pad, Lewis said.

“It just seems to have been interrupted, like something has exploded,” Lewis told the AP.

Over the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space. However, the program has had recent problems. There have been five failed launches in a row for the Simorgh program, another rocket carrying satellites. Another fire at Imam Khomeini Spaceport in February 2019 also killed three researchers, authorities said at the time.

The launch pad used for the last launch remains marred by an explosion in August 2019 that even caught the attention of then-President Donald Trump. He then tweeted what appeared to be a classified surveillance image of the failed launch.

Successive failures have raised suspicions of outside interference in Iran’s program, which Trump himself alluded to when he tweeted at the time that the United States “was not involved in the catastrophic accident”. However, no evidence has been provided to show foul play in any of the failures, and space launches remain difficult even for the world’s most successful programs.

Meanwhile, Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards in April 2020 revealed their own secret space program by successfully launching a satellite into orbit. The head of US Space Command later dismissed the satellite as ‘a webcam tumbling through space’ that would not provide vital intelligence to Iran – although it did show Tehran’s ability to orbit with success.

The launch, however, comes as Western diplomats warn that time is running out to restore Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, which has seen Tehran drastically limit its uranium enrichment in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. Trump unilaterally pulled out of the deal in 2018, setting the stage for years of tension and mysterious attacks across the Middle East.

President Joe Biden, however, did not mention Iran in his State of the Union address which largely focused on Russia’s war on Ukraine.

The United States alleged that the Iranian satellite launches defied a UN Security Council resolution and called on Tehran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

Iran, which has long said it is not seeking nuclear weapons, has previously maintained that its satellite launches and rocket tests have no military component. US intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency say Iran abandoned an organized military nuclear program in 2003.

Today, Tehran enriches uranium up to 60% purity – a short technical step from weapons-grade levels of 90% and well above the nuclear deal‘s 3.67% cap. Its stockpile of enriched uranium also continues to grow, and international inspectors are struggling to monitor its progress.

While Iran’s former President Hassan Rouhani has recalled the country’s space program for fear of alienating the West, radical new President Ebrahim Raisi has focused instead on getting the program started. Iran has a series of satellites it plans to launch and Iran’s Supreme Space Council recently met for the first time in 11 years.


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