Last weekend's launch of an Iranian rocket sparked days of debate over what its intended mission was — and although officials in Tehran are characterizing it as merely a test of the launch vehicle, U.S. military intelligence officials now see it as a failed attempt to put a satellite in orbit.
A defense official confirmed to NBC News on Tuesday that the Iranian attempt was being viewed as a failure, and that Iran's claims about the missile test were seen as a cover story to conceal this.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly about the assessment, but his views echo other reports emerging from Western intelligence sources.
According to the Pentagon source, the Safir ("Messenger") rocket was launched just before 3 p.m. ET on Saturday from a base near Semnan in northern Iran, carrying what he called a "crude communications satellite" with only "limited capability."
Soon after reaching an altitude above 500,000 feet, the missile failed and broke apart, the source said. The missile broke up when the second stage was firing, and the resulting debris was scattered across Iran and the Gulf of Oman, he said. The rocket was apparently aiming for an orbit about 400 miles (650 kilometers) high, inclined to the equator about 62 degrees.
The source explained that a U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Russell, monitored the launch from the Persian Gulf. The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, reportedly confirmed that the attempt was unsuccessful, but the U.S. Strategic Command has declined repeated requests to release a public assessment.
Iranian news agencies waited 18 hours to announce the launch on Sunday afternoon — an early indication that the mission did not proceed according to plan. The first reports, apparently written before liftoff with the assumption of success, described the launch of a satellite into orbit. Several hours later, corrected versions appeared, claiming that the launch was a missile test that would pave the way for launching a real satellite “soon.”
Other features of the launch raised suspicions, including the odd fact that it occurred at night. This runs counter to the long-established practice of launching test missions in full daylight so that cameras and visual observers can notice any anomalies during the early ascent into space.
Copying the North Koreans
The two-stage Safir launch vehicle is similar to the Shahab 3 missile with an upper stage added. The first stage, when used as a military missile, has a range of about 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometers). With a second stage, it can place small payloads — 100 to 200 pounds (50 to 100 kilograms) — in low Earth orbit.
The Shahab is believed to be closely based on the North Korean Taepodong 1 missile. A Japanese weapons expert told Asahi TV in Tokyo on Monday that in return for North Korean missile technology, Iran provides North Korea with uranium-enrichment technology.
Iranian officials deny any such reliance on foreign technology. They have used missile launches as opportunities to hail their own expertise. Thus, they can be expected to reject outside claims that their new source of nationalistic pride was actually a failure.
Under these circumstances, they may be tempted to borrow another North Korean space trick. In 1998, that country claimed to have launched a small satellite into orbit. Nobody outside the country saw it, detected it on radar, or heard its radio beacon. Nevertheless, North Koreans were lined up in public squares at dusk for months afterward, told the satellite was passing overhead, and obediently oohed and aahed in admiration.
The religious angle
If any Iranian leader has his fate tied to the satellite program, it’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. During a visit to Turkey last month, he predicted the satellite launch would occur this month.
Ahmadinejad was present at this launch on Saturday, and offered a prayer before liftoff: "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. O God! We beseech you to hasten the lofty advent of your heir [the hidden Shiite imam]. O God! Present him with good health and your assistance; and grant us the honor of being his best companions and to testify before him."
After the launch, the initial (and later corrected) Iranian press reports echoed this theme: "The satellite was sent into orbit today on the occasion of the birthday anniversary of Shiites' 12th Imam (May God Hasten His Reappearance), thus illustrating the auspicious name of the Imam in the space."
The references to a hidden religious leader relate to Ahmadinejad's claims that a messianic Muslim ruler known as the Imam Mahdi, foretold by Shiite texts, would soon make himself known. Some have even speculated that the name of the rocket and satellite, Safir-e Omid, or “Messenger of Hope,” refers to Ahmadinejad’s world view.
Other influential figures in Iran, including supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have been critical of efforts to exploit the prophecies about the Imam Mahdi. Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of Ahmadinejad's political rivals, has been quoted as saying the obsession over the Imam Mahdi "misled millions of people."
If it turns out that the launch was timed specifically to occur on the Imam Mahdi's birthday, the rocket team may have had to take shortcuts in their preparations. Any perceived cause-and-effect between the rushed launch and the subsequent failure could play into the hands of Iranian officials opposed to Ahmadinezhad’s governing style.
Perhaps the best way out of this fate is for the Iranians to press on and launch another rocket, carrying another satellite, and hope it reaches orbit successfully. If this occurs in a few weeks, the first embarrassment may be overlooked. If it takes significantly longer to make the next attempt, last weekend's failure may have bigger internal consequences.
NBC News space analyst James Oberg spent 22 years at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer, and is the author of "Space Power Theory," a book on military space policy commissioned by the U.S. Space Command.