Iran again fails to put satellite into orbit amid US worries

TEHRAN, IRAN (AP) — An Iranian rocket failed to put a satellite into orbit on Sunday, state television reported, the latest setback for a programme the United States (US) claims helped Tehran advance its ballistic missile programme.

The launch happened at 7.15pm at Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran’s Semnan province, some 230 kilometres southeast of Iran’s capital, Tehran. A Simorgh, or “Phoenix” rocket couldn’t put the Zafar 1 communications satellite into orbit, however, due to a low speed, Iranian state TV reported.

“Stage-1 and stage-2 motors of the carrier functioned properly and the satellite was successfully detached from its carrier, but at the end of its path it did not reach the required speed for being put in the orbit,” Iranian Defence Ministry Space Programme spokesman Ahmad Hosseini told state TV.

Hosseini still sought to portray the failure as a “remarkable” achievement for its space programme. Previous Simorgh launches of the 80-tonne satellite carrier suffered other failures.

In the days leading up to the launch, Iranian officials had been promoting the mission, including Iran’s Information and Communications Technology Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi. His quick rise through the Islamic Republic’s carefully managed political system already is generating speculation he could be a candidate for Iran’s 2021 Presidential campaign.

Satellite image from Maxar Technologies shows activity at the Imam Khomeini Space Centre in Iran’s Semnan province. PHOTO: AP

Jahromi acknowledged the unsuccessful launch in a tweet shortly after the news broke on state TV, comparing it to a “few samples of US launch failures”.

“But we’re unstoppable! We have more upcoming great Iranian satellites!” Jahromi tweeted in English. He later tweeted in Farsi that “sometimes life does not go the way we like it to go”.

He added, “Please do not pay attention to fake news.”

The launch had been planned amid celebrations ahead of the February anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Revolution.

Iran routinely unveils technological achievements for its armed forces, its space programme and its nuclear efforts during this time. Satellite images by Colorado-based Maxar Technologies obtained by The Associated Press (AP) showed the launch tower for the rocket bore massive images of the revolution’s leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the current Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran had spent just under EUR2 million to build the Zafar 1, Jahromi previously said. Officials planned for the satellite, whose name means “victory” in Farsi, to remain in orbit for 18 months before crashing back through the Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrating.

Sunday’s failure came after two failed launches of the Payam and Doosti satellites last year, as well as a launch pad rocket explosion in August 2019.

A separate fire at the Imam Khomeini Space Centre in February 2019 also killed three researchers, authorities said at the time.

The rocket explosion in August drew even the attention of US President Donald Trump, who later tweeted what appeared to be a classified surveillance image of the launch failure.

The three failures in a row raised suspicion of outside interference in Iran’s programme, something Trump himself hinted at by tweeting that the US “was not involved in the catastrophic accident”.

Iran postponed the launch from Saturday, the same day the country faced a major cyber-attack.

The US alleges such satellite launches defy a United Nations (UN) Security Council resolution calling on Iran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

American officials, as well as European nations, worry such launches could help Iran develop intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment and the White House did not immediately acknowledge the launch.

Iran, which long has said it does not seek nuclear weapons, maintains its satellite launches and rocket tests do not have a military component.

Tehran also said it hasn’t violated the UN resolution as it only “called upon” Tehran not to conduct such tests. Western missile experts have also questioned the US contention that Iran’s programme could have a dual use for nuclear weapons.

Over the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space.