Iran has its sights set on putting an astronaut on the moon by 2025, after becoming the first Islamic nation to put its own payload into space last year. But the grand goal of getting to the moon may be among the least of the benefits Iran expects to reap from its expanding space program.
Iran's motivations for a space program are most likely practical: developing possible ballistic missile technology and building international prestige as a message to friends and enemies alike, analysts say.
"They will clearly use dual-use technology for a military buildup, and as long as they at least dabble in human spaceflight, they get advantageous press coverage on that as well," said Joan Johnson-Freese, professor of National Security Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.
Iran launched its first domestically built satellite in February 2009 and promises more satellite launches in 2011. It also has offered to help any other Muslim countries with developing their own space programs, according to a FAQ recently compiled by Tiffany Chow, a researcher at Secure World Foundation, a watchdog group based in Washington, D.C., that tracks space security issues.
Such political signals may serve Tehran's purpose even if the country lacks the technical capabilities to back up its intentions, analysts said.
"Given the current state of Iran's launch capabilities, it is unlikely that they'd be able to develop a human spaceflight program and successfully send an Iranian to the moon by 2025," Chow pointed out.
Fits and starts
Several earlier launch attempts by Iran appeared to fail despite the country's claims otherwise, according to the Secure World Foundation FAQ. The rocket technology involves a mix of North Korean and Soviet missile designs.
The first launch attempt involved a two-stage rocket named Safir ("Ambassador" in Farsi), with a dummy satellite, Aug. 17, 2008. The rocket failed shortly after liftoff, according to outside analysts.
Confirmed success finally came with the launch of the Safir-2 rocket Feb. 3, 2009. That rocket placed an Omid satellite weighing some 44 to 60 pounds (20 to 27 kilograms) into low Earth orbit. The cube-shaped satellite is almost 16 inches (40 centimeters) on each side.
Another launch attempt, this past Feb. 2, involved a Kavoshgar ("Explorer") sounding rocket designed to climb just 62 miles (100 kilometers). The sounding rocket — a rocket designed to collect data rather than transport cargo — had a living payload consisting of two turtles, a worm and a rat that were supposed to parachute back down to safety. No solid proof of the launch's success ever emerged.
Iran had played up the event by launching the rocket from the back of a military truck rather than one of the country's four designated space launch sites. The Defense Minister, Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, oversaw the launch and issued a warning that Iran would not tolerate "any unpeaceful use (of space) by any country."
Such portrayals by Iran of its launches are in stark contrast to "repeated delays in their space program and failures not discussed," according to Charles Vick, senior technical and policy analyst at GlobalSecurity.org.
Next on the launch pad
There's more to come in 2011.
Iran announced it will launch its 89-foot-long (27 meters) Simorgh rocket, also known as Phoenix, which has a liquid fuel propulsion system capable of carrying more than 220 pounds (100 kg) to an altitude of almost 311 miles (500 km).
The Simorgh rocket can carry a new generation of Iranian satellites such as the Mesbah "Lantern" cube satellite, which measures almost 20 inches (50 cm) on each side and weighs between 132 and 165 pounds (60-75 kg).
Mesbah-1 was originally designed and built by Italy and slated for launch by Russia. (Russia had built Iran's first commercial satellite, Sinah, and launched it Oct. 27, 2005.)
But Russia reported that the Mesbah-1 satellite never arrived for launch, and in July 2009 it announced its refusal to launch any more Iranian satellites. Italy similarly refused to help. Mesbah-1 disappeared and has since been replaced by Mesbah-2, built by Iran largely using the Italian design.
"Some of Iran's domestic launch capabilities are indeed inspired by, and to some extent based on, foreign models and systems," Chow told SPACE.com. "Based on recent Iranian claims, though, it appears their newest launch vehicles and satellites are indigenously designed and constructed."
The Tolu ("Sunrise"), due to launch in 2011, would become Iran's first remote-sensing satellite.
Behind the rocketry
Iran's launch vehicles rely heavily upon North Korean and Chinese rocket or missile designs, which are in turn often derived from Soviet missiles, analysts say. [Most Destructive Space Weapons Concepts]
"Direct evidence of assistance, education and hardware transfer from the Chinese to the Iranian and North Korean defense and space (industries) has been witnessed on large scale within China's military industrial infrastructure," Vick said in an e-mail.
North Korea has been focusing mostly on missile development, as opposed to space, given their failures to achieve sustained orbit for any satellites, Vick noted. Meanwhile, Iran's ballistic missile program has been moving like "gangbusters," he added.
But Vick compared the intentions behind China's five-year plan and Iran's three-year plan for space to the Apollo moon program of the 1960s. The Apollo and other U.S. civilian programs helped push ahead basic sciences and military technologies to keep the United States "several generations ahead of our adversaries," Vick explained.
Johnson-Freese suggested Iran sees a space program as a "win-win from both the technical and techno-nationalistic political perspectives," considering how missile and rocket development go hand-in-hand. Whether or not that gets them to the moon may be beside the point.
"The bottom line is, I think Iran's human spaceflight plans are mostly talk, but any part that isn't will be a bonus to them," Johnson-Freese said.
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