New imagery from commercial satellites that was shared with NPR suggests Iran is making repairs and preparing for a space launch, following a recent string of failed attempts.
The imagery, taken Sunday by the commercial firm Planet and shared via the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, shows vehicles parked at a building used to assemble Iran's space rockets at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in northern Iran. A second group of vehicles is visible at a circular launch pad that was heavily damaged during failed launch preparations last year.
"It looks pretty clearly to us like Iran is going to try and put a satellite into space," says Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute who tracks Iran's space program.
Iran has launched satellites in the past, but its program has been less than successful in the past year. Launch attempts in January and February of 2019 both ended in failure. And during preparations for a third attempt, in August, a rocket apparently exploded on the launch pad.
President Trump later tweeted a high-resolution image of the wreckage that was taken by a spy satellite, adding: "The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran. I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One."
Evidence of the latest launch preparations doesn't shock those who watch Iran's space program closely. In fact, the nation's minister of information and communications technology, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, tweeted on Jan. 18 that the country soon plans to put two small communications satellites, known as Zafar 1 and 2, into orbit.
Lewis says he doesn't think Iran is necessarily using the launch to send a political message. "This isn't about the Iran nuclear deal or the killing of Qassem Soleimani," he says, referring to the U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3 that killed the Iranian military commander. "These programs have existed for a long time, and we have seen Iran do a number of launches in the past."
Iran says its space program is peaceful. But the Trump administration insists that the program is a cover for developing intercontinental ballistic missile technologies.
"Such vehicles incorporate technologies that are virtually identical and interchangeable with those used in ballistic missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement following last January's failed launch attempt.
But other experts say Iran's space rockets would make poor missiles. "This is not a viable platform to use a ballistic missile," says Michael Elleman, who directs nonproliferation and nuclear policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "It's large, it's unwieldy, and it doesn't add any capability to what they already have."