Iran preparing to conduct test launch of solid-fuel satellite rocket

The US has. in the past, expressed concerns satellite launches could help Iran develop ballistic missiles.

 Test launch of the Zuljanah solid-fuel satellite rocket, February 2021 (photo credit: Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA))
Test launch of the Zuljanah solid-fuel satellite rocket, February 2021
(photo credit: Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA))

Iran is preparing to conduct a test launch of its Zuljanah solid-fuel satellite carrier rocket, a spokesperson for the Iranian Defense Ministry announced on Wednesday.

Seyed Ahmad Hosseini, the spokesman, told the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) that three test launches of the Zuljanah rocket had been planned, with one test launch already having taken place last year and two more test launches planned. Iranian media called the test launch last year “successful.”

The Zuljanah is a three-stage rocket that uses both solid and liquid fuel engines. The rocket is able to carry cargo weighing up to 220 kg and reach a height of 500 km, according to Hosseini.

The announcement about the planned launches comes just a few days after The Intel Lab and IIS research associate John Krzyzaniak published an analysis of satellite imagery, showing possible preparations for a satellite launch at the Imam Khomeini Space Center near Semnan, Iran.

Last week, the Aleph OSINT Twitter account reported based on an unnamed source that a satellite launch vehicle (SLV) had been spotted on June 1 being transported near Semnan, accompanied by a small military convoy. The source added that the cargo was either from Parchin (where an alleged drone attack was reported last month) or the “Khavaran road” area.

The announcement also comes just days after the Iranian Defense Ministry announced the “martyrdom” of Iranian aerospace scientist Mohammad Abdous during an unspecified “mission” in the Semnan province. The Saudi-backed television station Iran International claimed that Abdous had been working on “building and developing weapons for Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

Latest space development by Iran

The intended test launch comes as negotiations between world powers and Iran to return to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal have stalled. The IAEA Board of Governors recently approved a resolution censuring Iran for nuclear violations; Iran retaliated by disconnecting over 20 IAEA surveillance cameras at key nuclear facilities and starting up advanced centrifuges.

The US has argued that satellite launches – such as the one planned soon – represent a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231 endorsing the JCPOA agreement. The Permanent Representatives of Israel and the US complained that the space launch vehicles incorporate technologies that are “virtually identical to those used in ballistic missiles designed to be capable of carrying nuclear weapons.”

Resolution 2231 calls on Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.”

While Iran does not currently have ballistic missiles that can reach much of Europe, the solid propellant stages used by the Zuljanah could be used in a future ICBM to deliver payloads of about 500 kg to ranges of at least 4,000 km - far enough to reach all of Europe - if Iranian officials decide to move forward with the development of such a weapon, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS).

This makes the Zuljanah a “candidate precursor” for an ICBM that could hit core members of the European Union.

In March, the IRGC announced the successful launch of the Noor-2 military satellite into orbit.

In February, Iran unveiled the “Khaybar Shekan” (Khaybar buster) missile, which refers to an ancient Jewish oasis called Khaybar in the Arabian Peninsula’s Hijaz region that was overrun by Muslim warriors in the 7th century. The missile is purported to have a range of 1,450 kilometers and is propelled by solid fuel.

In January, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force Commander Amir-Ali Hajizadeh stated that Iran had successfully tested a solid-fuel satellite carrier called the “Raafe,” adding that it was made of non-metal and composite materials, making it “cost-efficient,” according to IRNA. The commander added that this technology exists in only four countries around the world and that this was the first time a solid-fuel rocket was used in Iran.

Hajizadeh promised at the time that Iran will launch “many satellites with cheap engines.”

The Iranian Farheekhtegan newspaper reported at the time that the engine announced by Hajizadeh could allow Tehran to build missiles with a range of more than 2,000 kilometers. Composite materials can also reduce the weight of missiles and rockets and allow them to travel faster.

In December, Iran announced the launch of three research payloads into space on the Simorgh liquid-fueled rocket. However, no objects were detected in orbit, indicating that the payloads did not succeed in entering orbit.