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Mesbah - The first Iranian satellite; will travel around the Earth 14 times a day. (credit: Iran daily)

By the end of September a Russian Cosmos 3 missile will be launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome 800 km north of Moscow, carrying two Iranian satellites into orbit. Although the satellites are claimed to be for meteorological and experimental purposes, experts believe that one of them will possess surveillance capabilities allowing it to observe American and Israeli military facilities throughout the Middle East. More importantly, experts believe that the Iranian space program serves as a cover for developing more advanced long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Although Iran has a relatively advanced military research and development program of its own, it still falls short of the technological level required for an independent space program. As in the case of its nuclear and long-range missile programs, Iran turned to countries which assisted her in developing its military capability in the past including Russia, China and North Korea. These countries are currently involved at different levels in the Iranian space program and in particular in the development of the booster which will probably be a derivative of the Shihab ballistic missile. However, the current launch, planned for late September 2005, will not be performed using a native Iranian launcher but rather by a Russian Cosmos 3 launch vehicle.

The Iranian Satellite to be launched called the Mesbah, which literally means "lantern," has been in the works for the last eight years and reached maturity after collaboration between Iranian and Italian engineers. The Italian company Carlo Gavazzi Space (CGS), who assisted in the Iranian space effort to develop the Mesbah also contributed extensive knowledge to its partners and as a result, Iranian officials have been quoted as being optimistic regarding their ability to independently launch more advanced satellites in the next several years.

The 65-75kg Mesbah will, according official Iranian sources, be used as a tool for collecting data on ground and water resources and meteorological conditions, and will also be used to control power supply systems and pipelines. However, various intelligence sources report that the satellite will also have limited surveillance capabilities and will be used by Iran to gather intelligence information on neighboring countries including American bases in Iraq, the Gulf and Israel. The satellite is expected to remain in orbit for three years and some experts say it will be able to continue operations for up to five years. Along side the Mesbah, the Russian Cosmos 3 will reportedly launch a smaller Iranian satellite named Sinah-1. This 20kg domestically made satellite was meant to be launched using Iran's own launcher as a technology demonstrator, but for unknown reasons will eventually be launched using the Russian booster.

Nations around the world have raised concern regarding the ongoing efforts by the Iranian government to acquire advanced military capabilities including independent satellite launching capabilities which are directly linked to the development of its ballistic missile program. Tal Inbar, senior research fellow at the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, told IsraCast that the development of the Iranian space program will allow Iran to continue the development of its long-range ballistic missile program surpassing the watchful eye the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the organization in charged of preventing the proliferation of missile technology. Technologies that accompany the development of satellites such as micro electronics can also be used as a cover for the development of small size nuclear weapons which will fit the advanced version of the Shihab missile, says Inbar.

The Outer Space Treaty and anti satellite weapons

In October 1967, the "Outer Space Treaty" was entered into force calling for, among other things, nations to preclude from military activity in space and in particular from placing and using weapons of mass destruction in outer space. While the interpretation of the treaty ranges from absolutely no military activities in space to allowing activities that are passive in nature, the result is that military activities are curtailed and limit space as a realm for employing national security activities.

Anti satellite missile (ASAT) launched by F15 during high-altitude supersonic climb. (credit: US Air Foce)

Regardless of the treaty, several countries began seeking different ways to neutralize what they considered the threat from above. The Cold War was the breeding ground for wild ideas, many of which were worthy of science fiction. During a certain period of the Cold War the U.S. was actively testing nuclear weapons as a means of destroying enemy satellites in orbit. The Soviets were also developing various anti satellite systems including a "suicide satellite" that remains dormant until called into action to intercept an enemy satellite by crashing into it. In the late 70's the U.S. started the Anti-Satellite Missile project (aka ASAT). Launched from a modified F-15A in high-altitude supersonic climb the ASAT two-stage missile was able to reach targets as high as 560km and above.

PP78-1 - NASA Orbiting Solar Observatory (OSO), the only satellite destroyed by anti-satellite missile (credit: NASA)

On September 13, 1985, the first and only destruction of a satellite by an American air-launched missile occurred, when an F-15A launched an ASAT against the American solar observatory satellite "P78-1" in a 600 km (375 mile) orbit. Although the satellite was beyond its designed life-time, it was still working and its destruction led to some protests by scientists.

Although the U.S. Air Force planned to purchase a large number of ASAT missiles, the project was terminated in 1988 partly due to political reasons because of concern that the ASAT might violate treaties regarding the military use of space. In recent years other so called "hard kill" methods for destroying satellites were suggested including lasers, Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP) bombs and other high energy weapons.

Although these methods might have been useful as a last resort in an all-out conflict, there are many reasons why a country might prefer a "softer" approach to neutralizing satellites. By using electronic warfare it is possible to block the communication lines between the satellite and its base station. It is an open secret in the commercial communication satellite world that a ground station can be used to jam another communication satellite, something that happens by accident on a semi-regular basis. It is also theoretically possible to hijack a satellite by breaking into its secure communication with its ground station and rerouting it. Another soft option that was suggested was using lasers to blind the optical equipment on a satellite thus temporarily disabling its ability to observe a specific area.

Iddo Genuth

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