TEHRAN, Iran – Iran is finishing construction of a new space center that will allow it to soon launch more domestically made satellites into orbit, the country's defense minister said Saturday.
The remarks by Gen. Ahmad Vahidi's were the first confirmation that Iran is building a new space facility amid the standoff with the West over Iran's controversial nuclear program. The West is concerned the program masks efforts to make atomic weapons, a charge Tehran denies, insisting it's only for peaceful purposes.
Iran's ambitious space plans have also raised concerns in the West because of their possible military applications -- the same rocket technology used to send satellites into orbit can also be retooled to make intercontinental warheads.
Vahidi, in comments carried by the official IRNA news agency, said the first satellite to be launched from the new center will be the Tolo. It will be carried into orbit by the Iranian-made Simorgh light booster rocket, he said.
Vahidi didn't say where the new facility, which has been named after the Islamic Republic's founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, is located.
Iran already has a major satellite launch complex near Semnan, 125 miles east of Tehran, and another space center -- a satellite monitoring facility -- outside Mahdasht, about 40 miles west of the Iranian capital.
"Some 80 percent of the actual construction of the new space center has been completed," Vahidi said, adding that the new facility will send "satellites from Iran, the regional countries and the world of Islam into orbit in the near future."
Iran's decades-old space program is a key aspect of its efforts to achieve technological prowess similar to that of world powers. In Feb. 2010, Iran announced it had successfully launched a menagerie of animals -- including a mouse, two turtles and worms -- into space on a research rocket.
Iran launched its first commercial satellite in 2005 on a Russian rocket in a joint project with Moscow, which is said to be a partner in transferring space technology to Iran. That same year, the government said it had allocated $500 million for space projects for the next five years.
Iran's lofty space plans also include putting a man in orbit within less than a decade, despite the expense and technological challenges involved.
Iran says it wants to put its own satellites into orbit to monitor natural disasters in the earthquake-prone nation and improve its telecommunications. Iranian officials also point to America's use of satellites to monitor conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and say they need similar capabilities for their security.