Iran Launches Research Rocket, Unveils Space Center

Iran launched a research rocket Monday and unveiled its first major space center that will be used to launch research satellites, state-run television reported.

The report said the rocket, which is capable of carrying a satellite, was the first launched by Iran "into space," but analysts have expressed doubts about similar technological achievements announced by the country in the past.

Iran launched its first domestically built rocket last February, which soared to the edge of space but did not reach orbit level.

"The first Iranian rocket Explorer-1 was fired into space," state-run television reported Monday.

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Space is considered to begin at 60 miles above the earth. Ham radio satellites — the lowest flying satellites — orbit between 100-300 miles, while communication, weather and global-positioning satellites fly between 250-12,000 miles up.

Monday's report did not specify the altitude reached by the research rocket, but state TV showed live images of the launch from the space center, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad issuing the launch order.

Some Western experts have raised the possibility that Iran's space program may be a cover to more fully develop its military ballistic missiles, a prospect many find troubling at a time when the U.S. and others fear Tehran is trying to develop nuclear weapons — a claim Iran denies.

"With the launch, Iran has joined the world's top 11 countries possessing space technology to build satellites and launch rockets into space," the television said.

Before the launch, Ahmadinejad opened Iran's first major space center, which includes an underground control station and space launch pad, according to state TV.

"We need to have an active and influential presence in space," Ahmadinejad said at the inauguration ceremony.

Ahmadinejad also unveiled the country's first domestically built satellite, called Omid, or Hope.

State TV said the satellite took ten years to build, and the official news agency IRNA reported that it would be launched into orbit sometime in roughly the next twelve months.

"The research rocket is part of preparations for the launch of a satellite into orbit," said IRNA.

Iranian officials have suggested that the rocket launched last February's was a "sounding rocket," built to soar to a maximum altitude of 93 miles and used to conduct high-altitude measurements and testing. It was not immediately clear if the rocket launched Monday was identical.

In 2005, Iran launched its first commercial satellite on a Russian rocket, in a joint project with Moscow, which appears to be the main partner in transferring space technology to Iran.

Iranian officials have said the country wants to launch a satellite on an indigenous rocket and indicated they are developing a Shahab-4 missile to do that.

Iran's powerful ballistic missile, the Shahab-3, is believed to have a range of at least 800 miles, putting Israel and much of the Middle East in range.

In November, Iran said it had manufactured a new missile, the Ashoura, with a range of 1,200 miles, capable of reaching U.S. bases in the Mideast.

Iran hopes to launch four more satellites by 2010, the government has said, to increase the number of land and mobile telephone lines to 80 million from 22 million. It also hopes to expand its satellite capabilities to increase Internet users to 35 million from 5.5 million.