Iran Launches First Homegrown Satellite

This still image taken from Iranian state television video shows the launch of the Islamic Republic's first domestically made satellite into orbit from an undisclosed location, Feb. 3, 2009. CBS/APTN

Iran has launched its first domestically made satellite into orbit, the president said Tuesday, a step forward for a fledgling space program that has been watched with concern abroad.

Like its nuclear program, Iran's space ambitions worry world powers because the same rocket technology used to carry satellites to orbit can also deliver warheads.

For nearly a decade, Iran has expressed an intention to develop a national space program. As it seeks to expand its influence in the Middle East, Iran touts such technological successes as signs it can advance despite U.S. and U.N. sanctions against it over its nuclear program.

In a year in which hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faces a tough election battle to stay in power, Monday night's satellite launch also gave him another symbol of national pride to hold up even as falling oil prices batter the economy and his popularity.

The telecommunications satellite, called Omid, or hope in Farsi, was launched late Monday after Ahmadinejad gave the order to proceed, according to a report on state radio. State television showed footage of what it said was the nighttime liftoff of the rocket carrying the satellite at an unidentified location in Iran.

The TV report praised the launch as part of festivities marking the 30th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed shah and brought hard-line clerics to power.

The launch touched off concern among analysts and government officials in Europe, the U.S. and in the country's primary adversary, Israel, about possible links between its satellite programs and its work with missiles and nuclear technology.

"There's almost always a link between satellite programs like this and military programs and there's almost always a link between satellites and nuclear weapons. It's the same delivery vehicle," said James Lewis, an expert on defense technology at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

A U.S. counterproliferation official confirmed that Iran launched a satellite. "How they intend to use it remains to be seen, and there is a possibility that we're witnessing satellite technology in this instance that isn't too far removed from Sputnik 1957," he said on condition of anonymity to speak about intelligence gathering. "And how long the satellite can actually remain functional is a question that remains, literally and figuratively, up in the air."

The White House condemned the launch and said it showed Iran was not acting responsibly.

"This action does not convince us that Iran is acting responsibly to advance stability or security in the region," said spokesman Robert Gibbs.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood, meanwhile, told reporters that "developing a space launch vehicle that could put a satellite into orbit could possibly lead to development of a ballistic missile system. So that's of grave concern to us,"

The United States and some of its allies suspect Iran is pursuing a covert nuclear program. Iran denies the charge, saying its atomic work is only for peaceful purposes such as power generation.

Officials from the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, Germany and China were set to meet Wednesday near Frankfurt to talk about Iran's nuclear program. The group has offered Iran a package of incentives if it suspends uranium enrichment and enters into talks on its nuclear program. The U.N. Security Council has imposed sanctions to pressure Iran to comply.

"This test underlines and illustrates our serious concerns about Iran's intentions," Britain's Middle East minister Bill Rammell said Tuesday. "There are dual applications for satellite launching technology in Iran's ballistic missile program."

Iran's president said the launch was intended to be a message of peace and friendship to the world. "We need science for friendship, brotherhood and justice," Ahmadinejad told state television.

Noting the technology's dual uses, Lewis, the defense expert, said launching satellites was also a way to test the missiles used to carry them.

"You're getting practice in launching missiles and no one can complain because it's peaceful," he said.

The Omid satellite was taken into orbit by a rocket called the Safir-2, or ambassador-2, which was first tested in August and has a range of 155 miles, or 250 kilometers. Iranian television said the satellite would orbit at an altitude of between 155 and 250 miles (250 and 400 kilometers).

The launch - and furthering Iran's space program - also has clear political aims.

"The political benefits of being able to put something in space are really the other side of this," Lewis said. "You can say, 'I am the dominant power in the region and here's the proof.' That's what a space launch does for you."

The radio report said the satellite is designed to circle the earth 15 times during a 24-hour period and send reports to the space center in Iran. It has two frequency bands and eight antennas for transmitting data.

Ahmadinejad said the satellite reached its orbit and had made contact with ground stations, though not all of its functions were active yet. He said, Iran would now seek to increase the ability of its satellite-carrier rockets to carry more weight.

Iran's space program is ambitious and even holds out the goal of putting a man in orbit within 10 years, though accomplishing that would be extremely expensive.

A domestic satellite program would put Iran in a growing club - more than 80 countries are building or planning to build their own satellites, according to Lewis. But the ability to launch them is a much more exclusive crowd; only nine countries have done so.

In 2005, Iran launched its first commercial satellite on a Russian rocket in a joint project with Moscow, which is a partner in transferring space technology to Iran along with North Korea and China. That was a small remote sensing satellite that photographs the Earth.

Also in 2005, the government said it had allocated $500 million for space projects in the next five years.

Iran has said it wants to put its own satellites into orbit to monitor natural disasters in the earthquake-prone nation and improve its telecommunications. Iranian officials also point to America's use of satellites to monitor Afghanistan and Iraq and say they need similar abilities for their security.
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