Iran issues “notice to airmen” for March 1 and 2 as Khomeni Space Center prepares.


A recent satellite image of Imam Khomeni Space Center shows that the launch gantry for a Simorgh “satellite launching vehicle” is in position for fueling and launch of the rocket.

Just weeks after North Korea successfully launched a satellite into orbit, Iran is preparing an attempt to match that effort—and rocket ahead in the development of its own ICBM technology in the process. Images obtained by Melissa Hanham, Catherine Dill, and Dr Jeffrey Lewis of Arms Control Wonk from Apollo Mapping and Airbus Defense and Space show that the Imam Khomeni Space Center near Semnan, Iran, is actively preparing for a launch. The Iranian government has issued a NOTAM (notice to airmen) warning them away from the area from March 1 to March 2.

The Khomeni Space Center is near Semnan, Iran—about 200 kilometers east of Tehran. The launch vehicle being stacked there, called the Simorgh, is designed to put a 100 kilogram payload (220 pounds) into a low-earth orbit of 500 kilometers (310 miles, or roughly 270 nautical miles).

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani holds a press conference in front of the Simorgh “satellite launching vehicle” being assembled in an Iranian attachment facility in 2015.

The satellite, which was unveiled in February, is called the Friendship Testing Satellite. It’s essentially a giant “cubesat” carrying a number of experiments. And like the North Korean Kwangmyŏngsŏng-4 satellite launched in February, the Friendship Testing Satellite is roughly the mass of a nuclear warhead.

That’s a significant step forward from Iran’s first orbital effort—a much smaller (27 kilogram, or 59 pound) satellite using a previous two-stage rocket, the Seman, in February of 2009. And the Simorg has a first stage that closely resembles the first stage of the Taepodong-2 rocket used by North Korea in its successful launch.

The Simorg has raised concerns about Iran’s potential development of an intercontinental ballistic missile. “There are differences,” wrote Lewis, who is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. “But the Simorgh demonstrates two essential technologies for an ICBM—clustered engines and staging. That said, the Simorgh itself is not an ICBM. What the US intelligence community says is: ‘This technology could be used for an ICBM-class vehicle.'”

North Korea’s successful February launch was condemned by the UN Security Council. (While it was initially reported to have been tumbling, the satellite has since stabilized and is active, ostensibly carrying out its “earth observation” mission.) But there has been little public discussion of the Iranian effort—perhaps because the recent nuclear deal has delayed the possibility of Iran creating a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could be carried aboard an ICBM. Still, the development of the Simorgh could also aid the development of medium-range ballistic missiles with much greater “throw weight”—missiles that would be effective in delivering conventional and chemical or biological warheads against targets throughout the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and potentially Europe.