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Iran


Tyneside, UK
2020 Oct 24
Saturday, Day 298

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Morning Surprise

Iran caught the world by surprise 2020 April 22 when it launched a satellite that no-one was expecting. Usually there are hints in the Iranian press of an impending lift off accompanied by low-level snippets of information from Iran watchers around the web. This time there was nothing and both the satellite and launch vehicle were new names in the space lexicon.


Breaking News

During the course of the day, Iranian news agencies carried stories that a satellite had been launched and successfully placed in orbit. The satellite was reported as being military in nature and called "Nour". Its launch vehicle was named as "Qased". In english, that's 'Light' and 'Messenger' respectively. Whilst details of the payload were not forthcoming, it is likely to include a low resolution Earth imaging camera.

News reports said that Nour was in orbit at 425 kilometres. It was necessary to wait until later in the day for confirmation. When orbit date was released by the US government's Space-Track web site it showed the satellite in a 426 x 436 km orbit at 59°.6 inclination and it was accompanied by the launch vehicle final stage at 427 x 445 km.


Context

Past launch attempts by Iran have been generally unsuccessful, including the mission to put the Zafar satellite into orbit earlier in the year. It got to orbital height but was short on velocity, so it fell back into the atmosphere.

To date, launches have happened under the umbrella of a loosely-knit Iranian space agency. This one came from the military in the form of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). It lifted from an IRGC base on the northern border of the Dasht-e Kavir desert rather than the Ayatollah Khomeini space centre from where all previous launches had occurred.

As well as being a surprise to the rest of the world, the event was probably not widely anticipated within Iran either. It was as if, following the failures of Iran's main space effort, the IRGC had decided to show everyone 'how things are done'.


The Launch

Videos posted by Iranian news media included views of lift-off from onboard the rocket and an on-screen timer. They showed that launch occurred a couple of seconds before 08:29 local time, or 03:59 UTC. Analysis of the orbit data from Space-Track pointed to the launch site being near 36° north, 55° east.

Michael R Thompson, a contributor to the Seesat-L discussion group for amateur satellite observers noted that one section of a video showed the launch location very precisely - 36°.200137 north, 55°.333196 east. A visit to Google Earth reveals a view of the actual pad.

The photos below are a Google Earth view of the site and a still from a launch video. In the still, the flame trench from the Google Earth image can be seen extending into the background. Nour was launched from a temporary stand near the fixed structure on the site. The rocket was delivered by a mobile transporter/erector.

   


Logistics of the Launch

The site lies about 165 kilometres to the north east of the Khomenei space centre. To the south lies Iran's central desert, ideal for dropping launch stages on uninhabited areas without the need to publish NOTAMs to warn air traffic away from any danger zones. Nour was launched on a south-easterly heading, about 145° azimuth. The track took it on a route running closel to the Pakistan border but one that ensured the track stayed inside Iran and that the last items of debris fell within Iran itself.



Reports emerged soon after the launch that parts of (probably) the Quassed second stage fell about 1,150 kilometres downrange in the south-east corner of the country, just short of Pakistan.


Orbit

With both the Khomeini space centre and the site used for Nour, the potential inclination of an orbit is extremely restricted because the locations are in the north of the country, and the range of available launch azimuth is narrow. Overflying Iran itself is constrained to heading southward across the central desert region. As a result, launches from the Khomeini centre have used inclinations near 56° and Noor's inclination is 60°. In fact, if the Nour launch site had been known in advance, any half-decent analyst would have been able to predict the inclination. Any other value would have meant risking a debris drop on one of Iran's southern cites, or across the border in Pakistan.




The question of a new launch site for Iran that would allow access to a range of orbit inclinations arose in 2012 and there were hints of a site being developed on the south east of the country. Nothing ever came of them but if Iran is seeking to use space in a meaningful way, perhaps now is the time to resurrect the idea. The page "New Launch Site" available from the left hand menu describes how it would work.

For a complete list of Ian's orbital attemps click here.

Page Date: 2020 Apr 23


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