A rocket at an Iranian space center that was to conduct a satellite launch exploded on its launch pad Thursday, satellite images show, suggesting the Islamic Republic suffered its third failed launch this year alone.
By Associated Press
Iranian state media and officials did not immediately acknowledge the most recent failed satellite launch at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in Iran’s Semnan province.
However, satellite images by Planet Labs Inc. showed a black plume of smoke rising above a launch pad there, with what appeared to be the charred remains of a rocket and its launch stand. In previous days, satellite images had shown officials there repainted the launch pad blue.
On Thursday morning, half of that paint apparently had been burned away.
According to the U.S., such launches defy a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Iran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
“Whatever happened there, it blew up and you’re looking at the smoldering remains of what used to be there,” said David Schmerler, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
Schmerler told The Associated Press that the images of the space center suggested that the rocket either exploded during ignition or possibly briefly lifted off before crashing back down on the pad. Water runoff from the pad, likely from trying to extinguish the blaze, could be seen along with a host of vehicles parked nearby.
“I think it is certainly an image problem,” said Michael Connell, an Iran analyst at the Arlington, Virginia-based nonprofit research organization CNA. “I think it’s going to embarrass the Iranian space agency. On the other hand though, getting a satellite into space … takes time.”
Over the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space.
NPR first reported on the satellite images of the apparent failed launch at the space center, some 240 kilometers (150 miles) southeast of Iran’s capital, Tehran.
Iranian satellite launches had been anticipated before the end of the year.
In July, Iran’s Information and Communications Technology Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi told the AP that Tehran planned three more launches this year.
The semi-official Mehr news agency quoted Jahromi on Aug. 13 as saying that the Nahid-1 was ready to be delivered to Iran’s Defense Ministry, signaling a launch date for the satellite likely loomed. Iran’s National Week of Government, during which Tehran often inaugurates new projects, began Aug. 24.
Earlier on Thursday, Iran’s Defense Minister Gen. Amir Hatami told the state-run IRNA news agency that the country’s satellite activities were “being done in a transparent way,” responding to AP and other foreign media reporting on activity at the space center.
“Whenever activity and research bear successful results, we will announce the good news,” Hatami said.
Iran has been caught on numerous occasions misrepresenting its military’s capabilities and technological advances.
The apparent attempt to launch the Nahid-1 comes after two failed satellite launches of the Payam and Doosti in January and February. A separate fire at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in February also killed three researchers, authorities said at the time.
Iran maintains its satellite launches and rocket tests do not have a military componen, but rivals like Israel and the U.S. maintain they are part of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions.
Tehran also says it doesn’t violate the U.N. as it only “called upon” Tehran not to conduct such tests.
The tests have taken on new importance to the U.S. amid the maximalist approach to Iran taken by President Donald Trump’s administration.
Tensions have been high between the countries since Trump withdrew the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal over a year ago and imposed sanctions, including on Iran’s oil industry. Iran recently has begun to break the accord itself while trying to push Europe to help it sell oil abroad.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.