TEHRAN (AP) – Iran has successfully sent its first domestically made satellite into orbit, the country's president announced yesterday, claiming a significant step in an ambitious space program that has worried many international observers.
The satellite, called Omid, or hope in Farsi, was launched late Monday after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave the order to proceed, according to a report on state radio. State television showed footage of what it said was the nighttime liftoff of the rocket carrying the satellite at an unidentified location in Iran.
A senior US defense official in Washington said the US military detected the launch of a missile into space. But it was not confirmed whether the missile was carrying a satellite, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak about the intelligence.
In Jerusalem, the head of Israel's Space Agency, Zvi Kaplan, said initial reports show that a satellite was launched.
"From what I have been investigating it is true," he said. "We are not surprised because in this day and age of information and technology and with Iranian scientists studying abroad they can obtain the knowledge."
Iran has long held the goal of developing a space program, generating unease among world leaders already concerned about its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. One of the worries associated with Iran's fledgling space program is that the same technology used to put satellites into space can also be used to deliver warheads.
The United States and some of its allies suspect Iran is pursuing a covert nuclear program. Iran denies the charge, saying its atomic work is only for peaceful purposes such as power generation.
"This test underlines and illustrates our serious concerns about Iran's intentions," Britain's Middle East minister, Bill Rammell, said in a statement.
The announcement of Omid's launch comes during festivities marking the 30th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the US-backed shah and brought hard-line clerics to power. State TV said the satellite was launched "for the great celebration of the Iranian nation and the 30th anniversary of the victory of the revolution."
Ahmadinejad said yesterday that the satellite, which he said had telecommunications capabilities, had reached its orbit and had made contact with ground stations, though not all of its functions were active yet. The launch was intended to be a message of peace and friendship to the world, Ahmadinejad told state television. "We need science for friendship, brotherhood and justice," he said.
The announcement of Omid's launch also came as officials from the US, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and China were set to meet today near Frankfurt to talk about Iran's nuclear program.
The group has offered Iran a package of incentives if it suspends uranium enrichment and enters into talks on its nuclear program. The UN Security Council has imposed sanctions to pressure Iran to comply.
Iranian television said the satellite would orbit at an altitude of between about 155 and 250 miles. It was taken into orbit by a Safir-2, or ambassador-2, rocket, which was first tested in August and has a range of 155 miles.
The radio report said the satellite is designed to circle the earth 15 times during a 24-hour period and send reports to the space center in Iran. It has two frequency bands and eight antennas for transmitting data.
Ahmadinejad said Iran has achieved the ability to launch satellites into orbit and would now seek to increase the ability of its satellite-carrier rockets to carry more weight.
Despite the anxiety by the US and its allies over Iran's space program, it is not exactly clear how developed it is.
In 2005, Iran launched its first commercial satellite on a Russian rocket in a joint project with Moscow, which appears to be the main partner in transferring space technology to Iran. Also in 2005, the government said it had allocated $500 million for space projects in the next five years.
Iranian officials first started developing the satellite, which weighs 60 pounds, in 2006.
Iran has said it wants to put its own satellites into orbit to monitor natural disasters in the earthquake-prone nation and improve its telecommunications. Iranian officials also point to America's use of satellites to monitor Afghanistan and Iraq and say they need similar abilities for their security.
Iran hopes to launch three more satellites by 2010, the government has said.