Iran’s ambitious plans for space exploration
The Independent Daily, Bangladesh, Independent Publications Limited, Dhaka, Bangladesh, feature article, 16th July 2008 issue, Science and Technology section, page 13.
Dhaka, Wednesday 16 July 2008 / 1 Shrabon 1415 / 12 Rajab 1429 / Vol 14 No. 111
On 4 February the Islamic Republic of Iran successfully launched a sub-orbital rocket called Safir (‘Envoy’ in Farsi) from its newly-opened domestic launch site in the northeast of the country. The rocket is also called Kavoshgar-1 or Explorer-1. On-board instrumentation sent telemetry back to the control centre from an altitude of about 250 kilometres. The test was a major step towards the country’s attempt to launch its first indigenous low-orbit research satellite, called Omid (Hope). This launch is scheduled for mid-2008. Speaking after the launch, the Minister of Communications and Information Technology, Muhammad Suleimani, whose portfolio covers civilian space activities, said, “We need to attend to space for research into earthquake prediction, floods, desertification and deforestation, as well as for communications services to remote areas”. Omid will fly in near-polar orbit 650 kilometres above the Earth. It will pass over Iran six times every 24 hours. It will be the country’s second satellite. The first was the Russian-made Sina-1, which was launched on 27 October 2005. At that time, Iran became the 43rd nation to own a satellite. Iran has pursued a space programme for many years. It first embraced the idea of using space and its technologies for peaceful purposes in 1958, when it joined 17 other countries to establish the UN ad hoc Committee for International Co-operation on Space.
This committee later became the Committee of Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. It serves as a forum for information exchange between space-faring nations. It also seeks to encourage the development of national programs to study outer space. However, it was the launch of ERTS – which later became Landsat-1 – in 1972 that spurred real interest in remote sensing. Iran built a facility at Mahdasht, 65 kilometres west of Tehran, to obtain remote sensing imagery from the satellite. The Iranian Remote Sensing Centre operated the facility. It was established to collect, process, and distribute relevant imagery products to users throughout the country for resource planning and management. Over the years it has supplied data to assist in identifying areas for development. It enables scientists to identify areas prone to earthquakes, floods, landslides and other natural disasters and threats. The centre has also been used to investigate greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution in the large urban areas, and to monitor wetlands, inland water basins and the environment of the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. In 2004, the Iranian Space Agency was established, with a mandate for all civilian applications of space science and technology. The Supreme Space Council, chaired by the president of the country, controls the agency. The agency’s brief from the council was to generate programs for the peaceful applications of space technologies. This included a satellite and launch vehicle programme, as well as promotion of the ground segment – the efficient application of space technology. Regional and international co-operation in space was also part of the mix. Promoting applications of space science and technology is a vital part of Iran’s current plans. This includes close attention to capacity building, research and the exchange of experience. It also includes the expansion of bilateral and multilateral co-operation at regional and global levels. This has led to the emergence of Earth observation and satellite manufacturing industries. Several programmes are being implemented.
The first Iranian satellite to begin construction was called Mesbah (Lantern). Research began in 1997. It was designed to gain experience in space systems manufacturing. A prototype was constructed during 1999-2001 by the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology, the Ministry of CIT, the Iranian Research Organisation for Science and Technology and the Iran Telecommunications Research Centre. The result was a 70 x 50 x 50 cm micro-satellite, weighing just 65 kg, with a store and forward communication function. When it was launched, its 900-kilometre orbit took it around the Earth 14 times daily. It can be observed from any given station in Iran four times in 24 hours. It is controlled from a ground station located in the ITRC. It has an expected life of three years but it will be capable of continuing operation for up to five years. While it was designed to cover Iran, it will be able to render services in Europe and the Americas. The project was implemented in co-operation with the Italian Carlo Gavazzi Space Company. CGSC also operates a back-up control station. The mission cost US$10 million. The next mission was the $15 million, 160 kg, 80 x 130 x 160 cm Sina-1. It was launched on a Russian Kosmos-3M rocket from Plestesk in Murmansk Province of the Russian Federation, to an altitude of 700 kilometres. It was placed in a sun-synchronous near- polar orbit with an inclination of 98.18 degrees and period of 98.64 minutes.
Its mission is to monitor natural disasters and observe agricultural trends. It also has a communications function. Sina-1 offers 50 metre resolution in panchromatic mode with a 50 kilometre swath. The multi-spectral scanning mode has a resolution of 250 metres with a 500 kilometre swath. Next up will be the Small Multi- Mission Satellite (SMMS). It is an international joint venture in co-operation with China and Thailand. Its main function will be disaster and environmental monitoring, civilian remote sensing and communications experiments. It will be placed in a 650 kilometre, sun-synchronous orbit. The satellite will weigh 490 kg and cost $65 million. Iran will pay $44 million including launch costs.
It will carry a low-resolution charge- coupled device (CCD) camera and an experimental telecommunications system. Iran will contribute to building the craft’s CCD sensor. Some of the technologies used to develop the device will enhance the country’s long term design and manufacturing capabilities. Further down the track, the ISA has plans for further missions. Designers are already working on three new missions: Sina-2, Sepehr and ZS4. In addition to the space segment, Iran has been developing ground facilities throughout the country for communications and data acquisition. Three down stations, at Boomhen, Asadabad and Isfahan have been established, although they are mainly used for communication purposes. The old Mahdasht satellite receiving station is being redeveloped as the Mahdasht Space Centre. It will comprise a comprehensive reception, control and tasking facility, as well as work, living and leisure facilities for Iran’s space science and technology specialists, scientists and officials. Other ground stations have also been established for receiving remote sensing data managed and controlled by the private sector and universities. In accordance with the country’s Fourth Five-Year Development Plan (2005-10), $422 million will be allocated to space science and technology development. Minister Suleimani says this investment will facilitate telecommunications and improve the national response to natural disasters. Over the last few decades, Iran has worked on basic capacity building in space science and technology by developing education and training at the graduate and postgraduate levels. A number of universities and scientific institutions offer courses in air and space sciences, such as remote sensing, aerospace and telecommunications. Administrators are optimistic that the new generation of people educated in space science will play a role in developing technology for the country’s sustainable development and wellbeing. A lot of work is now underway in both state run and private organisations. Since its establishment, ISA has been used as a vehicle for Iran’s diplomatic engagement with the world community. It used its position on the UN’s Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space to contribute to the third UN International Conference on Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNISPACE-III). Iranian officials chaired an action team on the development of a worldwide comprehensive strategy for environmental monitoring. At a regional level, Iran actively co-operates with the UN Economic and Social Commission of Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), and in particular with the Regional Programme on Space Technology Applications (RESAP). ESCAP and the ISA have advanced plans for the establishment of a Centre for Informed Space-based Disaster Management and an affiliated research centre. The country is a member of the Asia-Pacific Space Co-operation Organisation (APSCO). It also provides funding for the organisation, along with China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Thailand, Turkey, Bangladesh, Mongolia and Peru. Investing in space is expensive. It can only be justified in Iran because all aspects of the space programme, especially its remote sensing capability, are integrated into the economic, educational, technical and political life of the nation.
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