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Iran's first satellite launch aboard a home-grown rocket last week has left observers puzzled over just how it was done. Was the satellite launched by a feeble rocket pushed to its limits, or has Iran's secretive space programme managed to develop a far more powerful launch vehicle without anyone noticing? The answer will affect how soon the country might achieve its stated goal of sending humans into space.

Iran launched its satellite – called Omid, or "Hope" – on 2 February. According to Iranian media, it is a 40-centimetre cube weighing 25-kilograms, and is equipped with radio transmitters.

Foreign tracking stations and amateur sky watchers have been following the craft's relatively low orbit, which is expected to decay over weeks or months due to atmospheric drag.

At first, it was thought that the launch vehicle, called Safir-2, was derived from relatively feeble missiles that burn ambient-temperature liquid fuel, which Iran was already known to have.

Two of these missiles stacked one on top of the other could boost a third, small, solid-fuel rocket that could take a lightweight payload like Omid to orbit.

Two stages
But evidence has begun to emerge that the rocket might be more powerful than this. Amateur observers report that the last stage of the rocket, which is also in orbit, is much brighter than the satellite itself, suggesting it is too large to be the third stage of a relatively modest rocket.

Geoffrey Forden of MIT, who specialises in the analysis of foreign countries' launch capabilities, is one of those now mulling over whether the rocket had just two stages, with a second stage that was much more powerful than anything Iran was known to possess. This would be possible using a cryogenic fuel system involving liquid oxygen.

If true, this would have important implications for Iran's ambition to launch astronauts into space, something Reza Taghipour, head of Iran's Aerospace Industries Organization, has said the country hopes to do before 2021.



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