Tuesday, 7 September 2004

Purely for Civil Purposes

From a SatNews article, dated February 19, 2003:
Iran and Italy have signed an agreement to launch Iran's first telecommunications satellite within two years.

The satellite, called "Mesbah" (Lighthouse), will provide TV and communications channels and replaces an earlier satellite project with Russia that has since been abandoned. No value for the deal with the Italian company Carlo Gavazzi Space was released, however. Mesbah is to be launched in the next two years.

Under the agreement, Iranian and Italian experts will cooperate on the project throughout the testing, production and launching stages of the satellite. The agreement also envisages the training of Iranian experts by Carlo Gavazzi Space. The agreement was signed after successful completion of the first phase of the project for designing and building a laboratory model of the satellite.

Now from SpaceDaily :
Iran intends to launch its first satellite into space in April 2005, with the device described as being purely for civil purposes, Iranian media reported Thursday.

The satellite, code-named Mesbah (lantern), was shown on state television. It is said to weigh 60 kilograms (132 pounds) and is cube-shaped which each side measuring 50 centimetres (20 inches). It will be put into orbit at an altitude of 900 kilometres (about 560 miles).
Regular readers will know that I headed the On-Board Computing team for FedSat, a microsat also half-a-metre on a side, massing just under 60 Kg, and in an 800-and-something km orbit. (Use the search facilities on the left to find out the gory details, pix etc)
So I know a bit about things like this. Anyway, to continue:
"The satellite will be used to identify natural resources, control the electrical and energy network (gas and oil), and later on can be used by communications and crisis management," press reports said.
It must have a rather better imager than the StarCamera on FedSat, and even that produced an uncomfortably large chunk of data with each shot. The StarCam was being used for attitude-control, basically helping to really accurately measure the satellite's position and attitude. On-board processing attempted to pattern-match the 3 brightest stars, normally the raw data wouldn't be sent back down. But we stored it away in mass memory for testing purposes, and could even upload a test pattern from the ground. Basically, a 640 x 480 16-colour jpeg. You'd need something rather more detailed, and with rather more data per shot, for ERT (Earth Resources Technology). However, several nations (such as the Nigerians) already have very similar systems either in development or in service.
Similarly, data communications, including emergency service, is a natural use for a constellation of such satellites. Even a single one can provide a mail-forwarding service, getting data from, say, a buoy in the middle of the Pacific on one orbit, and storing it until a later orbit when it can be downlinked. Similarly, a short message can be uplinked to the satllite, and a few hours later, can be retrieved from anywhere on the planet. Great for monitoring seismic or meteorological stations in remote locations (such as mountain tops, mid-ocean, Antarctica etc). Also good for monitoring pipeline valves in the Back of Beyond.
The head of the Islamic republic's Scientific and Industrial Research Centre, Seyed Mohammad Fathi, was quoted as saying the project would allow Iran to develop other satellites in the future.
Depending on the technology transfer from Italy, certainly. With FedSat, the satellite bus (chassis) was supposed to be bought from SIL in the UK. Well, they went bust, so we had to do 80% of the work ourselves. Now I'm certain Iranian scientists and engineers are at least as competent as the Australian ones, most of whom (like myself) had never worked on a space programme before. FedSat is very much more complicated, with additional experiments such as a Magnetometer, Ionospheric research package, a self-healing Field-Programmable-Gate-Array (FPGA) which detects and corrects radiation damage to the hardware, and a K-band communications module. Lots of new stuff, lots of 'First Time Evers'. And ours worked, and continues to work.

In January, Iran's defence minister said the satellite would be launched by Iranian technology, but gave no further details.

One of the reasons these specifications, (half-a-meter cube, 60 Kilos, 700-900 km orbits) are chosen is because they always go as "piggy-back" payloads. Usually along with larger satellites, but sometimes along with up to a dozen smaller ones. FedSat went with 2 other microsats along with the multi-tonne ASDEOS-2/Midori satellite. The cost of riding on such a launch is on the order of $1 million, about $20,000 a kilo. Very cheap indeed. In fact NASDA (the Japanese Space Agency, now renamed JAXA), gave us a free ride in exchange for some of our scientific data.

To launch a fairly expensive satellite like this with a home-grown booster just doesn't make any sense, it's just throwing money away in massive quantities, with an excellent chance of launch failure. You can pay $1 million and have a 95% chance of success, or pay $20 million and have at least a 50% chance of losing your $20 million satellite. Only one explanation is credible.

Launching a satellite like this "with Iranian technology" means they're developing IRBMs. Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles, with ranges way in excess of anything the Pakistanis or Indians have tested. And possibly longer, true ICBMs. Add this to the Iranian Nuclear program, and Alarm Bells should be ringing. Not just in Washington or Tel Aviv, either. London may or may not be in range, but Berlin and Moscow almost certainly are.

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