— Iran is ready to enter space, according to a report in Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine.
The report quotes Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the chairman of Irans National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, as saying that a space launcher has been assembled and "will lift off soon", carrying an Iranian satellite.
The launch vehicle is thought to be based on Irans Shahab-3 Missile, which has a range of 1300 to 1600 kilometres (800 to 1000 miles). The fear is that it might be intended to test technology for a long-range ballistic missile.
This has been anticipated for some time the Iranians have been saying they will launch satellites says Doug Richardson, editor of Janes Missiles and Rockets.
Their first aim might be reconnaissance. They are concerned about what capabilities Israel has, and the only way they can find out is by observing from space, says Bhupendra Jasani of Kings College in London, UK, an expert in the military applications of space. Clearly they cant fly aircraft, that would be a violation of airspace, and they would be shot down very quickly.
Eventually if they do seriously develop any kind of nuclear capability, then they would want satellites to provide targeting information, says Jasani. And once they have developed a vehicle to launch satellites, then its not a big step to put a nuclear warhead on.
Stage by stage
According to the Aviation Week report, the satellite launch vehicle might then be converted into an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICMB) with a range of about 4000 kilometres (2500 miles).
If a launcher can put a satellite into orbit then it can also deliver a payload of the same mass anywhere on Earth. However, a first-generation nuclear warhead which Iran is not yet thought to be capable of producing is likely to be heavier than a small reconnaissance satellite, limiting the missiles range.
The launch technology might take some time to perfect. The Shahab has probably been modified by adding more rocket stages to get a payload up to orbital speed.
It is not as easy to cobble these things together as people think, says Richardson. In the 1960s he worked on the unsuccessful ELDO project, a European launcher based on the British ICMB Blue Streak, with a French second stage and a German third stage.
More recently, in 1998, North Korea tried to launch a satellite with their Taepodong missile as a first stage It is about the same size as the Iranian Shahab. They added a Scud missile as the second stage and a solid propellant rocket as the third, says Richardson. It failed perhaps not surprisingly. North Korea's latest missile tests in 2006 ended in the failure of its intercontinental missile, Taepodong-2 (see North Korea resumes missile testing).
Nonetheless, experts expect that Iran's technical difficulties will be overcome eventually. The US Defense Intelligence Agency thinks that Iran may be capable of developing an ICBM with a range of more than 4000 kilometres by 2015, says Aviation Week.
Given Irans nuclear programme, and despite denials that the country is developing warheads, the concerns are obvious, say observers.
What worries me," says Jasani, "is that we have developed a lot of international control mechanisms such as the missile technology control regime and the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, but none of them seem to have worked.
Should we be considering other ways of doing things, to reduce the importance of nuclear weapons? Iran feels threatened by Israels nuclear weapons, and they turn to deterrence. We need to address the deterrent concept is it still viable? Jasani asks.