Jeffrey LewisA-Bomb in 3-D

Greetings from … Belgium, I think. I am in Europe this week — Den Haag, Bruxelle, Paris and London. Four cities in seven days.

I came back from my meetings today to discover, according to A-bomb, that “Iran has joined the world’s top 11 countries possessing space technology to build satellites, and launch rockets into space” by launching a missile, opening a space center and donning a pair of bitchin’ 3-D glasses. (The Lede really outdid itself with the picture (above) and the rundown on the press coverage.)

As far as I can tell, the missile is a Shahab-3 and the “Space Center” is co-located with Iran’s Shahab-3 test site. But, hey, did you see those specs?

Looks Like a Shahab-3

David Wright sent a note to the Space Sanctuary working group noting that, working from the picture provided by ISNA (below), the missile appears to be a Shahab-3 — which would not capable of placing a payload into orbit:

The url that Brian sent has a picture of a group of people standing around the base of a missile. If that missile is similar to the one that was launched (the coloring is different, but the structure seems to be the same), you can get a rough length scale. Applying that to the missile in the launch video on the Reuters site, I find a diameter of something over 1 m and a length of roughly 13 m. This is consistent with a missile the size of a Nodong/Shahab 3, with a range of 1,000-1,300 km with a 700 -1,000 kg payload. That range corresponds to a burnout speed of about 3 km/s, which is well under orbital speed for LEO.

This isn’t surprising — Iranian officials, in the past, have described the Shahab-3 in terms of the country’s space aspirations although the missile itself isn’t a space launcher:

“We are on the threshold of entering the international space club,” Nasser Maliki, Iran’s deputy defence minister for space affairs and deputy director of the state-run Aerospace Industry Organisation, declared in Tehran on 7 October 2004. “Until 1998 we were producing short-range missiles and today we are into the production of long-range surface-to-surface missiles like Shahab 1 and 2 which deter the enemy. Very certainly we are going to improve our Shahab 3 missile and all our other missiles.”

Ed Blanche, “Iran claims Shahab 3 range now 2000 km,” Jane’s Missiles and Rockets, 2004.

Space Center in Semnan Province

According to ISNA, the new Space Center is located in Semnan Province. (At least that is what AFP says; I can’t read the original in Farsi.)

Semnan Province is also the location of the test facility for the Shahab-3. Various articles in Jane’s locate at least five Shahab-3 flight tests (Numbers 3, 5-8 in 2000, 2002-2003) at Semnan. So, the location of the Space Center there makes sense with the visual identification of the missile as a Shahab-3.

I (and others) even found a suspect site — though we were not the first. Someone seems to have ordered a massive number of commercial satellite images of this spot near 35.238 N, 53.951 E (with many revetted buildings to the West) over the past few years.

If I had to guess, this is a pretty good candidate.


  1. Pedro

    That SLV is surely longer than 13 meters and much longer than the Shahab-3 variant tested today.

  2. Ali

    Iran has described the event as the “launch of a sounding rocket”; that’s all. No claims about putting things in LEO were made.

  3. yousaf

    The FAS folks have a write-up on a possible launch site for the rocket, and therefore possibly also the new space center:

  4. Geoffrey Forden (History)

    To my mind, the site at 35.2217°N 53.8949°E has more identifiably missile related components than the site mentioned in your previous post but all the indications point to producing solid-propellant missiles/rockets. For instance, the revetments on the south-east boundary could be used for horizontal testing of motors. (I think I see what could be very large artillery pieces being testing pointing eastward in several of these revetments. It would be perfectly consistent to test both missile motors and artillery pieces at the same site.) Also, the split level building in a revetment in the center could be the building with the casting pit for the motors. The long warehouses in the north-west quarter could either be for airframe manufacture or for manufacturing the different components for the solid propellant, which are only mixed in the casting pit. Or the propellant components could be produced someplace else; say in one Iran’s ammunitions plants. Anybody know where that is? They would have a lot of bunkers plus some warehouses for production.

    Iran has indigenously developed a lot of its own solid propellant missiles. Of course, the Shahab-3 (or variant) tested yesterday is a liquid propellant missile but that doesn’t mean the supposed launch site to the east still wasn’t used. In fact, perhaps the reason the Iranians have built a seemingly meaningless elevated mound for the launch pad is that they are thinking of eventually putting in an exhaust chute for launching larger ranged missiles. (The mound is certainly large enough to contain a support gantry.) This brings up an interesting question. Why is there an exhaust chute for the North Korean’s Tae’podong 1’s launch site? (40.8558°N 129.666° E) If the first stage is simply a Nodong, does it really need an exhaust chute? After all, the Nodong is launched from a mobile TEL. The only thing I can think of is that the reduced acceleration at launch, because of the increased weight, means that the exhaust plume would destroy a normal blast deflector so it needs an exhaust chute. Any thoughts from missile test experts?

  5. FSB

    As Ali states this was a research sounding rocket flight, probably just to add some fireworks to commemorate the new space center, & the whole thing staged in order to give a needed boost to Ahmadi-Nejad’s prospects in the upcomming parliamentary elections next month. Former reformist presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani are contesting Ahmadi-Nejad’s coalition.

    There was absolutely no real need for the US to boost Ahmadi-Nejad’s standing by condemning this non-event.

    Be cool Mr. Bush, even if you don’t have access to those killer shades!

  6. Geoffrey Forden (History)

    The artillery testing range is now confirmed with the “discovery” of a large field of craters about 1 km to the east of the test pits. (35.2193°N 53.9117°E) This means that they are undoubtedly testing howitzers.

  7. Anon

    There is an interesting facility at 35°24’50.06“N, 53°44’23.49“E just to the east of the Semnan New airstrip. It has what appear to be a number of launch pads.

  8. Ali
  9. Carl (History)

    Any idea who might have ordered all the commercial satellite passes?

  10. Martin Dirksen

    I cannot read Farsi either, but have a look at this:
    (It is an english article on the issue from ISNA as well
    Sincerley Yours
    News Code :8611-08811

    ISNA – Tehran
    Service: Foreign Policy

    TEHRAN, Feb. 4 (ISNA)-Iran launched a research rocket and revealed the first Iranian space center to be used for launching research satellite into space.

    The space center involves an underground control station and launch pad to be used to fire an Iranian satellite named Omid into space.

    The research satellite built by Iranian scholars is the first domestically-made satellite to be set at a low orbit.

    Omid would be launched in the next Iranian calendar year which begins from March 20.

    By building such a research satellite Iranian scholars achieved a big success and now Iran is one of those 11 top countries launching rockets to space.

    The president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad participating in the inauguration ceremony of Iran’s first space center said the country has taken the first to the space pretty strong and it should have an influential presence in the space.

    End Item

  11. yousaf

    could it be a lousy joke?…as in Shahab “3D”!

    Possibly, this is not a run of the mill Shahab 3, but a modified version. Iran has been working on those:

    This website — whose credibility I kindda doubt — says it has 4000km range!

    I don’t buy that, but worth examining if the range is larger than the regular ol’ Shahab 3. If Jane’s is saying that the regular Shahab has a 2000km range (with or without payload??), then possibly they could soup it a but more and put a tiny research payload…

  12. Geoffrey Forden (History)

    The pictures that Ali lists are very interesting but they have nothing to do with the missile launch shown on the Iranian video of Feb. 4th. Ahmadinajad appears to be standing near some sort of orbital maneuvering system, perhaps a model of the OMS used to inject the Iranian satellite into its final orbit when the Russians launched it a while ago.

    The fairing shown in one of the pictures (the one where everybody seems to be standing around the corner looking at something else) is also not the one used in the video of the Feb. 4th launch. Perhaps it too is related to the Russian launch of the Iranian satellite. My guess is that both are “training” models that the Russians gave the Iranians so that they could confirm that the satellite fit in the fairing and fit on the OMS. In fact, the video shows a “nose cone” that looks very like the nose cone associated with the ballistic missile launch. Why should that be if they have a scientific payload onboard? One possible answer is that they do not have or cannot trust the aerodynamics of a payload in a different shape than the tested warhead. (This ignores the obvious alternative that it wasn’t a scientific payload at all.)

    Both answers support the hypothesis that the fairing was given to them by the Russians for testing purposes. It certainly has never flown onboard a missile.

  13. Anon

    At 35°23’20.46“N, 53°44’11.05“E there are three ~40 ft long “trailers” and what might be 9 tractors. The resolution is poor, but they might be TEL vehicles. They are parked inside the perimeter of what appears to be a large military facility.

  14. FSB

    On Shahab 3D:

    In September 2000, an Iranian government spokesperson stated that the nation developed a modified missile, the Shahab-3D, to launch communication satellites.14 The Shahab-3D is a two-stage projectile that underwent a flight test in September 2000 using a combination of solid and liquid propellants.


    cites: [14]

    Washington Times
    September 22, 2000
    Iran Missile Test Fails After Takeoff
    By Bill Gertz, The Washington Times

    Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani told the official IRNA news agency that
    the test of a Shahab-3D was conducted as part of events marking the
    start of anniversary of the start of the war with Iraq, which began in
    1980 and ended in 1988.
    The spokesman said the missile was “solid-fueled” and will be used only
    for launching communications satellites and not warheads.
    “The necessary basis for designing and producing carriers to put
    satellites in orbit have been created,” Mr. Shamkhani said. “No
    military use has been forecast for Shahab-3D.”


    Janes report:

    At the following year’s parade in September 2005, two of the new ‘baby-bottle’ Shahab 3 missiles were displayed, although observers noticed certain differences between the two, leading Western analysts to conclude that Iran had developed two totally new variants of the Shahab 3 missile.

    The first ‘baby-bottle’ variant is about the same length as the basic Shahab 3. Assessed to have a maximum range of 2,000 km with a warhead of less than 700 kg, this variant features smaller ‘clipped’ rear fins. This is assumed to take account of the change in the centre of gravity incurred by the new missile configuration. The second variant appears to be about a metre shorter, with larger fins and a range estimated at less than 1,500 km.

    According to a Western diplomatic source, the triconic warhead variant actually indicates a totally new missile.

    “This [warhead] cannot be mounted on a basic or extended-range Shahab 3 because of the major internal configuration changes, changes in the warhead frame, centre of gravity of the warhead and differences in aerodynamic characteristics,” the source noted. “The stability of the missile depends on the centre of pressure and centre of gravity – these have to be configured for stability. You can’t just swap the warhead.”

    If Iran were to develop and manufacture a military nuclear capability, the advanced triconic Shahab 3 would likely be the preferred delivery vehicle for targets beyond its immediate borders.

    Western sources claim that the Shahid Hammat Industrial Group, which is responsible for developing liquid propellants for Iran’s missile programmes, is currently running a programme to develop a totally different missile with a range of 4,000-5,000 km (depending on payload).


  15. Gridlock (History)

    I would trust DEBKA less than I would trust MEMRI – there is an agenda behind their activity that is incompatible with scientific, rational analysis of events.

  16. Allen Thomson (History)

    YouTube has a number of videos taken from Iranian TV purporting to show the rocket and the launch site. E.g.,

  17. hass (History)

    Look! A building! They could be experimenting with mutant sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads in there…(bow to Austin Powers)

  18. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Anon, and I know who you are, that is TOTALLY it.