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Why the World Isn’t Freaking Out About Iran’s Plasma-Powered Spy Sat

Discussion in 'International Politics' started by Anees, May 17, 2012.

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  1. Anees

    Anees Lt. Colonel ELITE MEMBER

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    Why the World Isn’t Freaking Out About Iran’s Plasma-Powered Spy Sat

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    Next Wednesday, Iran will try to launch an experimental reconnaissance satellite into orbit — just as international negotiators gather in Baghdad for talks about Tehran’s nuclear program. The timing couldn’t be more inflammatory, and rogue state satellite launches are usually considered to be missile tests in drag. So why isn’t the world throwing itself into a tizzy about the mission?

    After all, when North Korea last month tried (and utterly failed) to get a satellite past the sky, the U.N. Security Council promptly condemned the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) for the launch. President Obama called it a “provocative action.â€￾ House Republicans even called for the Pentagon to bring back from the scrapyard a flying laser cannon to zap any future North Korean rockets. But for this Iranian launch, the latest in a series of space missions going back to 2005? So far, crickets.

    Back in February, a New Yorker writer found herself taken to Iran’s Alborz Space Center for a preview of the upcoming mission. All she could do was snicker at the Iranian presentations’ techno music and their misuse of the word “lunch.â€￾

    Originally scheduled to launch last October, the “Fajrâ€￾ (Dawn) satellite could be the first Iranian spacecraft with an ability to maneuver in orbit. Unconfirmed reports say it may even use a pulse plasma thruster to get the job done. As a spy satellite, it won’t be much of a snoop. Its images are supposed to have a resolution of 500-1,000 meters – at least 1,000 times fuzzier than the pics snapped by the American GeoEye-1 commercial imaging satellite.

    Still, the upcoming mission “is clearly a step on the way to learning about rocket technology that could be used for a larger booster, and that could be applied to a missile. And Iran’s program is much more systematic than North Korea’s program, so in that sense it seems to be building more technical competence in the area. So why isn’t there a UN resolution [against Iran's launches] like there is for North Korea?â€￾ asks David Wright, of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It seems odd that while the U.S. and its European allies are spending money and complicating relations with Russia over developing a missile defense system motivated by the future development of Iranian missiles, they do not seem to be responding to the development of Iran’s rocket technology as strongly as you would expect from the reaction to North Korea’s development.â€￾

    One major, major reason why: Iran is still believed to be years away from having nuclear weapons (even as it makes progress on enriching uranium). North Korea, conversely, built and tested its nukes years ago — and occasionally threatens to wipe out its adversaries in an atomic holocaust. Plus, Pyongyang is about 1,200 miles closer to Seattle than Tehran is to D.C. Take into account the west-to-east rotation of the planet, and Iran simply has to work harder than North Korea to send us scrambling for the keys to the fallout shelter.

    Still, that only partially explains what veteran intelligence analyst John McCreary calls the “odd double standard [that] seems to govern issues of missile proliferation. Unlike the North Korean space launch attempt, no nation has accused Iran of using a space launch to disguise a test of systems useful in long range ballistic missiles.â€￾

    That’s partially because Iran can plausibly claim to have a civilian space program. Tehran has already placed four spacecraft into orbit, starting with the 2005 launch of the Sina-1 joint Russian/Iranian satellite. In 2010, Tehran even sent a rat, two turtles and several worms into space. (A 2011 mission with a monkey on board was not so successful.) Next week’s scheduled launch of the 110-pound, solar-powered Fajr imaging satellite — due to stay in orbit for 18 months, at a height of 180 to 270 miles up — is just the latest.


    On the other hand, “there is little to no evidence for concluding that the North is serious about its peaceful space activities,â€￾ writes Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “Pyongyang has not yet demonstrated the ability to construct or even operate communications satellites, interpret data from remote sensing systems, or even engage in cooperative international space science research. In comparison to other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, the sophistication of the DPRK’s space efforts might be placed behind Bangladesh and Mongolia.â€￾

    But ballistic missiles and space-bound rockets are close cousins, right? Doesn’t that mean every Iranian launch is another step toward an Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) — one that can hit America? Shouldn’t we be ringing Teaneck, New Jersey, with missile interceptors right about now?

    “The argument is, well, this teaches them about a whole bunch of technologies that go into an ICBMâ€￾ — including the separation, ignition, and control of an ICBM’s three stages, notes Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. “The counter-argument is a lot of things are useful for them. It’s still not a friggin’ ICBM. It’s still not the same thing as doing it.â€￾

    The liquid-fueled Safir B-1 rocket being used in Iran’s upcoming mission is relatively small, with only two stages. It’s similar to the rocket that the North Koreans used in 2009 for their flop of a launch. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the first stage is basically a souped-up Shabab-3 medium-range ballistic missile, using a single North Korean Nodong engine. The Safir’s second stage uses small engines roughly equivalent to those in the old Soviet SSN-6 missile. All together, the Safir’s top range is estimated at 1,200 miles, well short of American soil. ICBMs, which use three stages, don’t just fly five times as far. They carry payloads of 1,100 to 2,200 pounds — 10 to 20 times larger than what the Safir is schlepping into orbit.

    It’s not the only technological hurdle Iran has to overcome. Each ICBM engine has to provide precisely the same amount of thrust — or else the pulses of acoustic energy from one engine might destroy another. The re-entry vehicle, the warhead, and the associated guidance systems all have to be able to withstand the heat and pressure of screaming through the atmosphere at many, many times the speed of sound. All of which is tough — even without a worldwide embargo on nuclear and missile technologies.

    A 2010 U.S. report on Iran’s military power (.pdf) said that “with sufficient foreign assistance Iran could probably develop and test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the United States by 2015.â€￾ But with increasing international cooperation in containing Iran, that help is much harder to come by these days.

    The Iranians shouldn’t be underestimated. As Uzi Rubin, former director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization, recently noted, “Iran managed to transform itself from a nonplayer to a significant missile power in less than one generation. For a country that never has had a world-class aerospace industry, this is quite remarkable.â€￾

    But at the moment, America’s spy agencies don’t believe there’s an imminent threat. The last two directors of national intelligence declined to make predictions (.pdf) during congressional testimony about when the Iranian ICBM would materialize. “The bottom line,â€￾ veteran CIA Mideast analyst Paul Pillar told Danger Room in February, “is that the intelligence community does not believe [the Iranians] are anywhere close to having an ICBM.â€￾

    Why the World Isn't Freaking Out About Iran's Plasma-Powered Spy Sat | Danger Room | Wired.com
     
  2. Mr Hit Smith

    Mr Hit Smith 2nd Lieutant FULL MEMBER

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  3. Tailchopper

    Tailchopper Captain SENIOR MEMBER

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    Maybe because Iranians are now notorious about lying about their technological capabilities.
     
  4. layman

    layman Aurignacian STAR MEMBER

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    They basically have modular brains. They can assemble tech. But don’t have capability yet to manufacture or invent new tech. But they do best with what they have for sure. They are not Barbaric. You just need to take out Ayatollah Khameni, then it very very easy to handle. Their political system also need to be simplified. Currently it is so complicated, if you want to track hierarchy you will go dizzy.
     
  5. Guynextdoor

    Guynextdoor Lt. Colonel SENIOR MEMBER

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    Yeah...I think their government puts out a lot of fluff around their projects.
     
  6. HZR2011

    HZR2011 REGISTERED

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    Just Bluff's
     
  7. SajeevJino

    SajeevJino Major SENIOR MEMBER

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