Iran’s Simorgh rocket appears to have suffered another failure during a previously-unexpected launch Thursday. Iranian media has reported that the rocket lifted off from the Imam Khomeini Space Centre at 03:30 UTC (07:00 local time) Thursday morning with three payloads aboard, and although a successful launch was announced, no objects have been detected in orbit.

Iran made its first successful satellite launch in February 2009, using a Safir rocket to deploy the Omid spacecraft into low Earth orbit. Derived from the Shahab-3 missile – itself a descendent of the Soviet R-17 family of missiles known in the West as the Scud – this had a relatively limited payload capacity but was enough to place Iran’s first, small, satellites into orbit.

Simorgh was developed as a successor to Safir, with the aim of giving Iran the ability to launch larger payloads, or several smaller satellites on a single rocket. It is a three-stage rocket which is reported to share some design similarities with North Korea’s Unha rocket – particularly in relation to its first stage. Simorgh launches from the Imam Khomeini Space Centre in Iran’s Semnan Province, which has separate launch pads for it and the smaller Safir.

Simorgh on its launch pad prior to Thursday’s launch (credit: Iranian Ministry of Defense and West Asia News Agency)

The Simorgh project was first announced in February 2010 as part of the celebrations for Iran’s first National Space Technology Day, which marked the first anniversary of Omid’s launch. The rocket’s maiden flight would come in April 2016, when a two-stage version of the rocket made a suborbital test flight. Due to the secrecy surrounding Iran’s space program, and unsuccessful launches in particular, the exact number of launches that Simorgh has made to date is not completely clear, although what is known for certain is that multiple launches have taken place and that the rocket is still yet to reach orbit.

See Also

Iranian Spaceflight UpdatesIranian Launch ScheduleOther Launchers (Korean, Brazilian etc.)Click here to Join L2

Aside from the initial test flight and Thursday’s launch, three more Simorgh flights have definitely taken place with at least one more, earlier this year, considered likely. The first of these was in July 2017. Like Thursday’s launch, Iran reported that the rocket had flown a successful test mission – implying a planned suborbital test – however US intelligence analysts tracking the launch identified that it had failed about twenty seconds into the second stage burn. A display at an Iranian exhibition earlier this year indicated that the Tolou-1 satellite – which had been expected to fly aboard Simorgh – was launched in 2017 and therefore was almost certainly the payload of that launch.

Two more launches took place in January 2019 and February 2020. These occurred during an unusual period of openness for Iran’s space program, with both missions were announced beforehand as orbital launches and publicly acknowledged to have failed to reach orbit – although in the case of the latter, the rocket was claimed to have launched successfully, but “not reach[ed] the speed needed to inject the satellite into orbit”.

In June this year, a US defence spokesman confirmed that the American military had detected another unsuccessful launch from Iran on 12 June. A few weeks later activity around the Simorgh launch pad suggested that another flight was imminent, which reportedly occurred on or before the 24th of that month. It is likely that at least one, if not both, of these launches involved Simorgh, with no spacecraft being tracked in orbit after either mission. Iran has not acknowledged that either launch took place.

But the story isn’t over. Because on June 20, @planet imaged the site again. A support vehicle and the mobile work platform are back at the gantry and there is another load of fuel (and possibly oxidizer) on site. The Iranians are going to try again! OSINT is wild. 10/10 pic.twitter.com/TqRkzfCtqR

— Dr. Jeffrey Lewis (@ArmsControlWonk) June 23, 2021

Reporting on Thursday’s launch, Iranian media have claimed that Simorgh carried out a successful launch, reaching an altitude of 470 kilometers and a velocity of 7.35 kilometers per second. This left it slightly short of reaching orbit, raising the question of whether this was a successful suborbital test flight, or another unsuccessful attempt to reach orbit.

Simorgh was reported to be carrying three payloads on Thursday’s launch. It is not immediately clear what type of suborbital research payloads Iran would have that require the performance of an orbital-class rocket like Simorgh to carry them, when sounding rockets like the Kavoshgar series are available and have demonstrated far greater reliability than Simorgh. This means that the primary objective of the launch would have either been the deployment of those three payloads into orbit, or a test of the Simorgh rocket with those three research payloads being carried out of opportunity, since the rocket would be launching anyway.

While a suborbital test flight cannot be ruled out – as it would make sense for Iran to want to collect more diagnostic data on a rocket with which it has been struggling to achieve results for the last few years and other rockets have also flown suborbital missions for this purpose – a flight profile that took Simorgh so close to reaching orbit without going all the way seems unlikely to have been intentional.

Simorgh prior to Thursday’s launch (credit: Iranian Ministry of Defense and West Asia News Agency)

While Iran has genuine scientific and military goals for its space projects, launches are also a point of prestige for the country and have often been timed around important national occasions — including Iran’s first orbital launch which occurred during celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the country’s Islamic Revolution. Had Thursday’s launch reached orbit – even if only with an inert or short-lived payload – Iran would have been able to show the world that it had resolved the issues plaguing its new rocket, and significantly expanded its ability to launch new satellites.

By stopping the launch just short of orbit, Iran would save little in terms of effort or resources compared to if it had completed orbital insertion, would not only have denied itself the prestige of an orbital launch but also the opportunity to validate every stage of flight under authentic conditions ahead of subsequent launches with operational payloads.

It, therefore, seems likely that whether Simorgh’s primary mission was to deploy its three payloads or if it was a test flight with those payloads along for the ride, the rocket was probably trying to reach orbit and fell just short. This may not be a complete failure for Iran, as the mission will likely have returned valuable data that will help refine the vehicle for future flights. SpaceX’s Falcon 1 rocket and Astra’s Rocket 3 both had similar failures on test launches that came agonizingly close to reaching orbit, but which were considered somewhat successful as stepping stones to those companies achieving fully successful launches on later attempts.

If the 7,350m/s is an inertial velocity, I reconstruct the likely trajectory as impacting south of Australia about 28 min after launch (whenever that was) pic.twitter.com/BWLR7lMjyi

— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) December 30, 2021

The rocket that performed Thursday’s launch had serial number UKS.C001.

If Simorgh’s three payloads were indeed satellites, there are a number that the Iranian media have reported as being close to launch, which could have been aboard the rocket. In Early December the Pars 1, Nahid 1 and 2 and Zafar 2 satellites were all reported as being ready to launch or expected to reach this status in the near future. If an unexplained delay to any of these missions should become apparent, it could indicate that a replacement satellite needed to be procured.

While Wednesday’s pair of launches from China was expected to be the final orbital launches of the year, Iran’s launch came without any preceding announcement, nor were any flight restrictions or notices to airmen (NOTAMs) noticed that could have indicated that launch activity was imminent. Assuming Thursday’s launch was intended to be orbital, and no more unexpected launches take place tomorrow, then it brings to a close a year that has seen at least 145 orbital launch attempts worldwide.

(Lead Image: Simorgh lifts off from the Imam Khomeini Space Center on Thursday’s mission – credit: Iranian Ministry of Defense and West Asia News Agency)

The post Iran’s Simorgh rocket falls short of orbit with three payloads aboard appeared first on NASASpaceFlight.com.