The Simorgh is a two-stage, liquid fueled Iranian space launch vehicle (SLV) designed to place satellites into low Earth orbit. U.S. intelligence analysts have assessed that many Simorgh components could be repurposed to develop long-range ballistic missiles.
Simorgh At a Glance
Originated from: Iran
Possessed by: Iran
Class: Space launch vehicle (SLV)
Length: 27 m
Diameter: 2.0-2.3 m (first-stage), 1.25 m (second-stage)
Launch weight: 70,000-87,000 kg
Payload: 250 kg satellite
Propulsion: Two-stage, liquid propellant
Range: 500 km altitude (low-orbit)
Status: In development
In service: N/A
Iranian efforts to build a satellite launch capability began with the creation of the Iranian Space Agency (ISA) in February 2004. Iran began testing its own rockets in February 2008 with the launch of the Kavoshgar-1 “sounding rocket,” not designed to place satellites in orbit. On August 17, 2008, Iran unsuccessfully tested the Safir SLV, a precursor to the larger Simorgh. The next year, however, Iran successfully placed its first satellite in orbit with a Safir, becoming the ninth country to place a satellite into orbit using indigenous technology.1 Both the Safir and Simorgh use engines from Iran’s Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile, and are thought to use a similar second stage motor and launch vehicle shroud.2
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad first publicized the Simorgh development program on February 3, 2010.3 Although Iranian officials initially said they would begin flight tests of the rocket in 2010, the first flight test, of disputed success, did not occur until April 2016. This delay may indicate that the challenges of developing multi-stage rocket technology were more difficult to overcome than expected, or that targeted sanctions limited Iran’s ability to acquire ballistic missile and space technology.4
There have been two known flight tests of the Simorgh. First launched on April 19, 2016, the SLV performed a “suborbital test flight,” although it is unclear if the test was a success. According to one U.S. defense official, “It was either an unsuccessful launch, or a test of third stage.”5
The Simorgh was launched again on July 27, 2017 from the Imam Khomeini Space Center in Semnan in north-central Iran. According to one media source, the Simorgh experienced a “catastrophic failure,” likely exploding before it reached space.6 Reacting to the test, U.S. Strategic Command only confirmed that no satellite deployed from the rocket.7.
Following this flight test, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on the rocket manufacturer, the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group (SHIG). The sanctions targeted six subordinates of SHIG responsible for manufacturing the rocket’s components, liquid propellant, and missile launchers.8
Foreign Assistance and Potential Military Applications
Some evidence indicates that Iran may have sought foreign assistance for the rocket’s development. During the U.S.-Iranian nuclear negotiations, U.S. intelligence agencies reportedly observed at least two shipments of rocket components transferred from North Korea to Iran, including large diameter rocket engines.9 The U.S. intelligence community also believes, according to media reports, North Korea gave Iran, “design data, stage separation technology, and booster equipment for the Simorgh.”10
Although the Simorgh is ostensibly designed to place satellites into orbit, intelligence officials have testified about the potential to apply the rocket’s engine technology to long-range missile development.11 A 2017 U.S. intelligence report concluded, “Progress in Iran’s space program could shorten a pathway to an ICBM because space launch vehicles (SLV) use inherently similar technologies… [the Simorgh] could serve as a test bed for developing ICBM technologies.”12
Iranian Space Agency (ISA)
The ISA ostensibly pursues civilian and research goals, specifically the development of communication and remote sensing satellites, as well as launch vehicle technology.13 The agency is overseen by the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, which takes direction from the Iran Space Council (ISC), also known as Supreme Space Council. The ISC is chaired by the Iranian president, and is presided over by the Minister of Defense (MOD).14
The current Iranian MOD, Hossein Dehghan, is a former brigadier general of the Islamic Republic Guard Corps (IRGC) air force. The dual-use nature of rocket technology and the influence of the IRGC makes some analysts concerned that the ISA is developing long-range ballistic missiles under the guise of a space program.
The Simorgh measures approximately 27 m in length, with a varying diameter of 2.0 to 2.3 m (first-stage) and 1.25 m (second-stage), and launch weight between 70,000 and 87,000 kg.15 Although most reports suggest the Simorgh is a two-staged rocket, one media report suggested that the rocket has been tested with a third stage.16
The rocket is liquid-fueled, and capable of placing a 250 kg satellite payload into orbit 500 km above the Earth’s surface. According to one analyst, if Iran did use the Simorgh as a ballistic missile it could have a 4,000 km range with a 1000 kg payload.17 This is about twice the range of Iran’s currently deployed Shahab and Sejjil medium range missiles, but still too short to reach the continental United States. To reach ICBM ranges (5,500 km+) the payload would need to be reduced to about 100 kg. Even with a lighter payload, it is unlikely the Simorgh would be able to travel the necessary 10,000+ km to strike the United States.18 Miniaturized nuclear warheads typically weigh around 500 kg or more.
The Simorgh is similar to North Korea’s three-stage Unha-rocket family. The first stage of the Simorgh uses a cluster of four Shahab-3 engines, like the four No Dong engines used in the Unha’s first stage.19 The configuration of the engines, however, is not completely identical, suggesting Iran reconfigured the design to match its technological capabilities and engineering goals. This alternative engine configuration could reflect the differences between the Unha’s more ambitious three stage, and the Simorgh’s more conservative two stage design. Although the Simorgh is a smaller rocket overall, its first stage is almost 2 meters longer than that of the Unha.20 Estimates based on models of the rockets show a different fuel-to-oxidizer tank ratio, indicating the rockets use different combinations of propellants.21