Iran launches its 1st military satellite into orbit: reports

Iran has apparently lofted its first military satellite into orbit, ending a series of setbacks for the nation's space program.

A two-stage Qassed rocket lifted off from the Markazi Desert in central Iran on Wednesday (April 22) and successfully delivered a military reconnaissance satellite called Nour to orbit, Al-Jazeera reported.  The rocket could be seen successfully launching into soace in this video from Iran's Tasnim News Agency and PressTV.

The outlet cited an announcement on the official website of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an elite military outfit distinct from the nation's regular armed forces. The IRGC announcement also stated that Nour is currently circling Earth at an altitude of 264 miles (425 kilometers).

Related: Iran in space: Rockets, satellites & monkeys (photos)

Images posted by Iranian state media suggest that the launch originated from an IRGC base near Shahroud, about 205 miles (330 km) northeast of the Iranian capital of Tehran, researcher Fabian Hinz of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California told Al-Jazeera.

You can't take announcements from autocratic regimes at face value, of course. But this information appears to check out, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who keeps close tabs on the many spacecraft whizzing around our planet.

"US has issued a TLE for a new launch 2020-024A, object 45529 in a 426 x 444 km x 59.8 deg orbit. Ground track is consistent with a launch from Shahroud at 0400 UTC plus or minus 2 minutes," McDowell said via Twitter on Wednesday. (TLEs, short for "two-line element" sets, encode information about satellites' orbits.)

"I consider that this confirms that the Iranian satellite successfully reached orbit," McDowell added in another tweet. 

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Such successes have been hard to come by for the Iranian space program lately. In February, for example, a Simorgh rocket failed to carry a communications satellite to orbit. A Simorgh launch also failed in January 2019, as did a liftoff involving another rocket, called the Safir, a month later. And in August 2019, a rocket apparently exploded on the launch pad at Imam Khomeini Space Center, wreaking ruin that was spotted from space. (Iran hadn't been shut out prior to today, however; its civilian space program has several short-lived satellite missions under its belt and also apparently launched monkeys to suborbital space on two occasions.)

Officials of the United States and its allies tend to view Iran's space program with suspicion, stressing that rocket tech and military-missile tech are basically one and the same. So, Wednesday's overtly military launch is likely to raise tensions between the U.S. and Iran, which were already ratcheted up a notch earlier this year. 

In January, a U.S. drone strike killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. Iran retaliated a few days later with missile strikes on multiple sites in Iraq that housed American troops. 

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.