Iran’s winged horse rocket: Another step towards global reach

The launch of Iran’s first solid-propellant space rocket is highly significant.

A Simorgh rocket is launched during the inauguration of Imam Khomeini National Space Base in northern Iran, July 27, 2017. Credit: Tasnim news agency via Wikimedia Commons.
A Simorgh rocket is launched during the inauguration of Imam Khomeini National Space Base in northern Iran, July 27, 2017. Credit: Tasnim news agency via Wikimedia Commons.
Uzi Rubin
Uzi Rubin
Uzi Rubin is an Israeli defense engineer and analyst.

On Feb. 2, 2008, Iran became the ninth space-faring nation when it successfully orbited its first satellite, the “Omid,” using its newly developed “Safir” rocket, an adaptation of the “Shahab 3” military ballistic missile. Ever since that milestone, Feb. 2 is celebrated annually in Iran as Space Technology Day. The Iranian Space Agency, which is formally—if not actually—in charge of Iran’s space programs, makes an extra effort to commemorate the day with a new space launch. Sometimes it is successful, and the world is treated to a new Iranian satellite in space. More often it is not, and Space Technology Day turns into a series of conferences and television programs describing the glorious past and painting an even more glorious future.

This year, the world was treated to the debut of Iran’s first solid-propellant space rocket. This is highly significant. Unlike liquid-propellant rockets that need to be fueled before launch, solid-propellant rockets are launch-ready at any time. Hence, most of the world’s ballistic missiles use solid propellants. The new Iranian space rocket was launched into a suborbital trajectory from Semnan space port. The new launcher was dubbed “Zuljanah” after the mythical horse of Husain Ibn Ali, the first martyr in the cause of Shi’ite Islam, who died in 680 C.E. More than millennia later, his faithful mount was honored with an emblem of a winged horse painted on the side of the new rocket.

The first disclosure of the existence of a new space launcher was made by Iran’s Mehr news agency on Feb. 9, 2020, when it announced the completion of the design of a new solid-propellant Space Launch Vehicle (SLV), dubbed “Zuljanah” and scheduled to make its first flight in June of that year. Later that year, in August 2020, Iran’s Defense Minister Amir Hatami referred to “Zuljanah, a solid propellant SLV” that is “the same size and shape as the ‘Simorgh’ liquid-propellant SLV, with the first launch schedule to fall within the current [Iranian year]” that ends in March 2021. He also mentioned that the “Zuljanah” will be capable of being launched from mobile launchers.

The new “Zuljanah” lifted off from its launch pad on Feb. 2, 2021, seven months later than the Mehr news agency announcement but still within the current Iranian year, as promised by Hatami. No satellite was inserted into orbit. Some reports said that the rocket reached an altitude of 320 kilometers. This might have signified a failure to reach orbit, but it is more likely that no satellite launch was intended. Rather, this first flight of the new space launcher was likely a preliminary suborbital flight test to check out flight characteristics and the launch sequence rather than an audacious leap into a fully-fledged space shot.

The Iranian Space Agency’s “Zuljanah” Space Launch Vehicle, unveiled on Feb. 1, 2021. Credit: Tehran Times.

The “Zuljanah” is Iran’s first-solid propellant SLV, sporting the largest solid-propellant motors yet revealed by Iran. It is a three-stage SLV with the first two stages comprising large solid-propellant rocket motors, each containing an estimated 20 tons of propellant, and a smaller, liquid-propellant third stage, seemingly a carryover from the earlier “Safir” first-generation SLV that has already launched four satellites into low earth orbit. The “Zuljanah” looks a bit odd, with a bulge in its middle. The need for this ungainly bulge stems from the interesting fact that the “Zuljanah” is using outdated technology for controlling its direction of flight, rather than the cutting-edge flight-control technology displayed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in its own “Salman” rocket motor last year.

Other throwbacks to older technology are evident, mainly the use of steel for the rocket casing rather than lighter and stronger composite materials that also featured in the IRGC’s already mentioned “Salman” as well as in their shorter-range ballistic missiles. The obsolete technology is probably the reason for the rather low performance of the “Zuljanah,” which according to Iran’s space agency release weighs 52 tons at takeoff but can loft to orbit only 200 kg., which is less than half of what a rocket this size should be capable of.

The fact that Iran’s latest space launcher is not benefitting from the Islamic Republic’s most advanced rocket technologies is remarkable. Usually, spacefaring nations exploit the best and latest technologies in their satellite launchers. There could be several reasons for this curious lacuna. Perhaps the new IRGC technologies have not yet been upsized to fit the much larger propulsion system of the “Zuljana.” In other words, the IRGC may not be able to produce composite-material rocket casings and flexible nozzles for thrust vectoring for a vehicle the size of the “Zuljanah.” At the same time, there is strong evidence that the IRGC has already tested much larger solid-rocket motors in its secret Shahrood facility.

More plausibly, the denial of advanced technologies to Iran’s civilian space program could be a result of the rivalry between the IRGC’s own space program (that came to light in April 2020) and the civilian space agency. The IRGC may regard its technologies as proprietary and bar its civilian rival from using them.

The “Zuljanah” represents a departure from Iran’s hitherto cautious policy of not provoking the West by flaunting its capability to produce missiles capable of reaching Europe. Iran’s second-generation SLV, the liquid propellant “Simorgh,” is not a good candidate for producing a derivative intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) or intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), due to its complexity and cumbersome launch method. The solid-propellant “Zuljanah” is a different story.

A ballistic missile using its two huge solid-propellant stages could probably deliver payloads of 500 kg. or so to ranges of 4,000 km. or more—enough to reach anywhere in Europe. In other words, the “Zuljanah” is a candidate precursor for a ready-to-launch, survivable IRBM aimed at the core members of the European Union. Moreover, the official Iranian release mentioned that the “Zuljanah” could be fired in the future from mobile launchers; a capability more appropriate for a military IRBM than a peaceful civilian space launcher.

The impression is that the Iranian leadership is stretching thin the cover story of its “civilian” space program, in tandem with stretching its compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, to accumulate bargaining chips for its forthcoming negotiation over the U.S. return to the deal. At this time, Iran’s nuclear transgressions are reversible and can be bargained away against the lifting of Trump-imposed sanctions. Similarly, Iran’s abrogation of its own self-imposed upper limit of 2,000 kilometers on its missile range, as implied by the potential of the “Zuljanah” to be turned into an IRBM, can be easily reversed as an implicit concession to European sensitivities.

The Iranian Space Agency used the occasion of Space Technology Day to unveil its road map to the future of its space program. And a glorious future it is—if the ISA is taken at its word. The “Zuljanah” is the ISA’s third-generation space launcher, after the “Safir: (which already orbited four satellites) and the “Simorgh” (which has failed to orbit any satellite to date). The next in line will be the “Sahrir,” a giant three-stage solid-propellant SLV with an estimated take-off weight of almost 160 tons, capable of lofting 700 kg. to an orbit 1,000 kilometers above earth’s surface. But even this giant will be dwarfed by what comes next: The “Sorus 1,” a 700-ton behemoth with a cluster of external solid-propellant boosters.

This behemoth will pale in turn against the “Sorus 2,” with a takeoff weight of 1,300 tons. This will almost match today’s largest space launcher, the U.S. “Falcon Heavy” made by Elon Musk’s legendary Space X company. No timetable for this ambitious program has been offered, but one can surmise that the mind-boggling “Sorus 1” and “Sorus 2” will not be seen on a launchpad in the near or even the intermediate future.

That may not be the case however with regard to the “Sahrir.” From its published image, it has a diameter of two meters. One of the last pictures of Hassan Mughadem, the father of Iran’s missile and space programs, shows him talking to a group of his assistants, with a two-meter-wide solid rocket propellant in the background. A coincidence? Perhaps not. Moghadem met his death in an explosion during what appeared to be the production of a huge solid-propellant rocket motor. This was part of a secret IRGC space program called “Gaem” that aimed to create a two-stage solid-propellant space launcher with a diameter of two meters. It seems that that ISA hopes to utilize the “Gaem” rocket motors for its next satellite launcher. Will the IRGC allow the civilian ISA to use its own proprietary rocket motors?  In any other country the answer would be a definite “yes,” but with the inter-organizational rivalries in Iran, as seen by the denial of IRGC advanced technologies to the civilian ISA, the answer remains in doubt.

Be it as it may, any of the giant “Sahrir” stages could be an excellent basis for a solid-propellant Iranian ICBM. As argued in the previously mentioned paper (“Iran’s Space Program”), Iran’s space program is in part a cover-up for long-range ballistic missiles that go beyond the self-imposed range of 2,000 km. The launching of the “Zuljanah,” and the ensuing revelation of Iran’s next satellite launcher, may have provided a limited yet significant preview of its road map towards the building of global-range missiles that can reach both Europe and the United States. Unlike their North Korean friends who brandish oversized ICBMs in garish nighttime parades, the more sophisticated leaders of Iran are astute in not yet showing their hand. They are just allowing the world a brief glimpse of what they can do, if and when they decide to become a global power.

Uzi Rubin was the founding director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization, which managed the Arrow program. He is now a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute of Strategy and Security.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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