Monday, February 26, 2007

Not Quite Ready for Launch

There was a bit of confusion in Iran over the weekend, regarding the status of that country's supposed space launch. At first, state-run media claimed that Iran had launched its first rocket capable of reaching space, suggesting that it had attained the capability to put payloads into orbit. But the Iranians quickly back-tracked on their initial statements, later reporting that they had actually launched a "sounding rocket," a relatively low-tech device used to gather atmospheric information.

What's interesting about these changing stories is that both came from Iranian officials supposedly "in the know." Early claims about the launch of a space rocket came from Mohsen Bahrami, head of Iran's aerospace research center. The revised account of the sounding rocket was attributed to Ali Akbar Golru, executive deputy of the same research organization--essentially, Bahrami's top assistant. It's the equivalent of the NASA administrator and his top deputy disagreeing over an event they likely witnessed.

So, what actually happened in Iran? There are several possibilities. First, Iran's intended space launch vehicle, a modified Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) and its payload, may not be ready for imminent launch, despite Tehran's claims to the contrary. Launch of the sounding rocket gave the Iranians a quick (and attainable) mechanism for claiming that one of their missiles had reached the lower levels of space. But, when they realized that the rocket's quick return to earth had been monitored by legitimate space powers, they quickly changed their story, to avoid a potential media debacle.

A second, less likely, scenario is that Iran attempted some sort of space launch (using a Shahab-3 vehicle), but it failed. The sounding rocket was also fired during the same launch window, providing a means for saving face and shifting attention away from an unsuccessful Shahab launch. Essentially a replica of North Korea's No Dong MRBM, the Shahab-3 has a checkered operational history, and chances for a successful space launch are probably middling, at best. However, if there was a Shahab-3 failure over the weekend, it would have almost certainly been detected by our space-based and air-breathing reconnaissance platforms. The absence of any "leaks" about a Shahab-3 failure (so far) tend to discount the possibility that Iran actually attempted a space launch this past weekend.

On the other hand, Iran's initial claims about launching a "space rocket" are consistent with other, recent boasts about its technological prowress. Last year, you may recall, Tehran stated that it had developed a "radar-evading" missile with "multiple warheads" and an ultra-high speed torpedo. Actually, the "stealthy" missile was nothing more than an existing model with a coat of radar-absorbing paint (that possibly peeled off in flight), and the "multiple" warheads were actually cluster weapons, a technology that's been used on battlefield missiles for decades. As for the torpedo, it was based on World War II-era technology, and follows a pre-determined path to its target. Changes in target speed, maneuvering and counter-measures are usually enough to defeat the high-speed torpedo.

If there wasn't a Shahab-3 space vehicle launch over the weekend, it suggests that the program has run into technical hurdles that will delay its first test. In the interim, Iran may send up a few more sounding rockets, gathering information that will be used in planning the space launch vehicle (SLV) test. But a sounding rocket isn't in the same league as an SLV. Propaganda claims aside, Tehran still has a ways to go in proving that it is capable of developing and testing a viable space launch platform--and putting a payload into orbit.

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