Satellite imagery of a space launch center in northern Iran suggests a second attempt to launch a satellite has failed.
The imagery, taken earlier today by San Francisco-based company Planet and shared with NPR, shows burn scars on a newly painted launch pad at the Imam Khomeini Space Center. The burns appeared after days of activity at the site which suggested Iran was preparing for a launch.
“We seem to see at least some scorch marks on the launch pad, indicating that a launch likely happened,” says David Schmerler, a senior research associate at The Middlebury Institute of International Studies, who has analyzed the imagery.
The burn scars on the pad indicate that the rocket took off successfully, Schmerler says. But Iran has made no public announcements regarding the launch, and Schmerler and others believe something went wrong later in the flight. “It looks like it went up and probably just failed to insert the satellite into orbit,” he says.
This is the second attempted space launch by Iran in less than a month. On January 16, Iran attempted to launch a satellite built by an Iranian university aboard a large rocket known as the Simorgh. In a speech several days after the launch, President Donald Trump warned that Iran’s space launch program could help it “to pursue intercontinental ballistic missile capability.”
Schmerler says the rocket used in this latest launch attempt is probably smaller than the one used in January. Known as a “Safir,” it is a two-stage liquid fueled rocket based on missile technology the Iranians obtained from the North Koreans.
But Schmerler and others say the ties between intercontinental ballistic missiles and Iran’s space program are tenuous. Iran’s space launching rockets are not designed to lob warheads at faraway targets, and the technology used in the rockets means they take time to set up and launch. That makes them poor weapons.
“The ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles while they look very similar are also very different than what they’re designed to do and how they’re designed to reflect that specific task,” he says.
Schmerler believes that despite the back-to-back failures, Iran will attempt another launch. “It’s trial and error,” he says. “And eventually they’re going to get it right.”