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Iranian satellite launched but fails to reach Earth’s orbit

Iranian Simorgh rocket - The opening of Imam Khomeini National Space Agency (RA). (Tasnim News Agency/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Iranian state television reports that Iran on February 9 failed in an attempt to launch an Iranian-made Zafar satellite into the Earth’s orbit.

Ahmad Hosseini, a spokesman for the Iranian Defense Ministry’s space program, told state TV that “the Zafar satellite did not reach orbit as planned” because it did not reach the necessary speed.

It is at least the third failed satellite launch by Iran since the start of 2019 in a program that Washington claims is helping Tehran to advance its ballistic-missile program.

Reports said the rocket that attempted to carry the satellite into a low orbit around the Earth was a two-stage, liquid-fueled Iranian rocket known as a Simorgh space-launch vehicle.

The launch took place from the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran’s Semnan Province, about 230 kilometers southeast of Tehran.

“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,” Hosseini told state TV.

Hosseini still sought to portray the failure as a “remarkable” achievement for Iran’s space program.

The report comes hours after an Iranian cabinet minister announced the launch plan, which coincided with the anniversary of a key event in the country’s Islamic revolution four decades ago.

Reports on February 8 suggested the launch had been postponed indefinitely.

But Iranian Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi said early on February 9 that “the Zafar satellite” would be placed in orbit later on the same day.

“Beginning countdown to launch #Zafar_Satellite in the next few hours… In the Name of God,” Jahromi later tweeted.

U.S. officials, who have pursued a “maximum pressure” policy toward Iran since Washington exited a major nuclear deal in 2018 that exchanged curbs on Iran’s nuclear program for sanctions relief, have suggested Tehran’s satellite program is part of a program of ballistic-missile development and that the technology could deliver nuclear warheads.

Iran rejects that accusation.

Also on February 9, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) announced that it had developed new short-range ballistic missiles propelled by a “new generation” of “Zoheir” engines that are designed to put satellites into orbit.

IRGC commander Major General Hossein Salami unveiled the missile and engines aside the head of the IRGC’s aerospace branch and said the lighter composite materials and a “movable nozzle” were part of “complicated achievements” that are “our key to entering space,” AFP reported.

Iranian claims of new weapons can be difficult to confirm and have sometimes proven misleading in the past.

The head of Iran’s national space agency, Morteza Barari, pledged on February 1 that the country would soon launch the Zafar (“Victory” in Farsi) satellite.

He said the 113-kilogram satellite would be carried by a Simorgh rocket 530 kilometers above the Earth and that it would make 15 orbits a day.

On February 8, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for further strengthening of Iran’s defenses, saying that “in order to impede war and put an end to the threats, one has to become strong,” according to Iranian state Press TV.

The supreme leader, who holds the final say on religious and political affairs, meets with senior members of the Iranian air force on February 8 every year to mark key military defections during the country’s 1979 revolution to overthrow the U.S.-backed Shah.

U.S. President Donald Trump ordered at least two aerial attacks on senior Iranian military leaders last month.

In one, an air strike near Baghdad’s international airport killed Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani, leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, along with a senior commander of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia and several other people.

Iran responded with missile strikes on Iraqi bases that house U.S. troops on January 8, reportedly injuring around 64 troops with what was described as “mild traumatic brain injury.”

Iranian forces also shot down a Ukrainian passenger airliner after takeoff from Tehran airport while air defenses were on high alert on January 8, killing all 176 people on board the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737.

Tehran has gradually stepped back from its own commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and said earlier this month that it no longer considered itself bound by it.

Last week, top EU diplomat Josep Borrell met with senior Iranian officials including President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran aimed at lowering tensions over Iran’s nuclear program.

Borrell said in January that he had consulted the countries still in the accord — which also include Russia and China — and that all were determined to save the JCPOA.

Barari, who is chief of the Iranian Space Agency, said manufacturing of the Zafar satellite “began three years ago with the participation of 80 Iranian scientists,” adding that it was designed to remain operational for “more than 18 months.”

He called it “a new step for our country” and said the satellite’s primary mission would be to collect imagery to study earthquakes, prevent natural disasters, and develop agricultural resources.

Iran reportedly hopes to construct five more satellites by March 2021.