Burn Notice

One of the great things about having high frequency 3 meter imagery is that we can now monitor sites of interests on a daily basis, sometimes two different images of the same location only seconds apart. This is one example:

For those of you who weren’t following before, Jeffrey, Fabian, and I spent a lot of time last year watching Iran’s new solid fuel production and test site south of the city of Shahrud. With its high bermed buildings, large concrete launch pad with gantry, and test stands located in a crater to the southeast, we have been able to monitor the sites expansion and sporadic testing.  But recently there has been a spike in activity which would be almost impossible to catch if it weren’t for the massive flock of Doves that Planet Labs operates in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).


On February 16th, we were lucky enough to catch two images, roughly 40 seconds apart, of the Iranian solid fuel team (likely) open-burning solid fuel for disposal.  In a corner of the test stand crater there was a small bermed area that we didn’t think much of as it didn’t really seem to change or have frequent traffic, however looking back at older imagery from last year we got a double take showing this same type of image signature.

Why this is interesting is that it gives us more insight as to the operating status of Shahrud, not only helping us to fill in the map of the facility, but revealing with greater certainty that facility is still in operation and producing solid fuel, that occasionally needs to be disposed of.  It is hard to see actual production activity as those processes happen in covered buildings however if you follow the production process you can draw modest conclusions as to the status of sites like this.

Solid Fuel Testing

Image guide for motor test stand activity – Coordinates: 36.2163, 55.3620

We have also seen new testing activity this month as well. In the past, the only horizontal test stands that have been used were the two southern most stands (identified in white), leaving the remaining three to the north unused.  However, Iran has conducted one (possibly two) tests this month from their northwestern test stand (identified in orange).

In the images above you can see the new test scar that appears opposite of the northwestern test stand between March 16th and March 20th. The same signature is seen again a week later. While this signature reappearance between the 27th and the 28th could be due to environmental factors, it could also be the first observed attempt to suppress testing signatures at this location. More images will be needed to better assess both interpretations however it appears that the months of February and March were busy for Iran’s solid fuel team.


  1. Dave (History)

    Great job Dave!

    From you

  2. Markus Baur (History)

    would it be possible to give lat/lon data for this site?

    • Dave Schmerler (History)

      The test area is located around 36.215918, 55.360713

    • Markus Baur (History)

      thank you – i was clearly looking in the wrong place .. 8)

  3. Dave Schmerler (History)

    all good! I should have known better and added the coordinates to the image guide for the test stands.

  4. J_kies (History)

    Dave – I suggest you are not looking at disposal but more in the lane of quality assurance / characterization firings of subscale motors – Consider the BATES motors used by US labs as an example of subscale heavyweight means to look at the differences in thrust (and Isp) caused by different manufacturing processes such as the uniformity / grinding of the solids that become components of the propellant.

    • Dave Schmerler (History)

      I can’t rule that out – I will look into it more but Open-pit burning seemed to fit well. If you have any material on that I would greatly appreciated it. It just seems a bit much and other similar sites abroad seemed to match better.