Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Is Iran's space program more advanced than thought?

Iran's first satellite launch aboard a home-grown rocket last week has left observers puzzled over just how it was done. Was the satellite launched by a feeble rocket pushed to its limits, or has Iran's secretive space programme managed to develop a far more powerful launch vehicle without anyone noticing? The answer will affect how soon the country might achieve its stated goal of sending humans into space.

Iran launched its satellite – called Omid, or "Hope" – on 2 February. According to Iranian media, it is a 40-centimetre cube weighing 25-kilograms, and is equipped with radio transmitters.

Foreign tracking stations and amateur sky watchers have been following the craft's relatively low orbit, which is expected to decay over weeks or months due to atmospheric drag.

At first, it was thought that the launch vehicle, called Safir-2, was derived from relatively feeble missiles that burn ambient-temperature liquid fuel, which Iran was already known to have.

Two of these missiles stacked one on top of the other could boost a third, small, solid-fuel rocket that could take a lightweight payload like Omid to orbit.

But evidence has begun to emerge that the rocket might be more powerful than this. Amateur observers report that the last stage of the rocket, which is also in orbit, is much brighter than the satellite itself, suggesting it is too large to be the third stage of a relatively modest rocket.

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