Iran launched another space satellite on February 2nd. Iran announced it as a high-resolution photo satellite called Fajr but its resolution appears to be very low. Life expectancy of Fajr is 18 months and it seems to be more experimental than something intended for serious work. That’s because Iran can get its satellite photography needs handled by Google Earth and arranging for third parties to order satellite photos sanctions do not allow it to obtain directly. Fajr also included solar panels and a positioning system, a first for Iranian made satellites. Also included was an experimental GPS system which could, if enough satellites were launched, replace dependency on American GPS.
The fact is Iran cannot afford to build put a lot of modern satellites into orbit just now. But they have scientists who keep themselves busy reinventing technologies developed half a century ago in the United States and the Soviet Union. It’s good for morale, of the scientists involved and Iranians in general. As a result of this policy in early 2014 Iran announced that their scientists and engineers at a university had built two new space satellites. One of the satellites was for communications, specifically for supporting satellite phones that use encryption. Just the thing Quds Force requires for its agents overseas. Quds Force supports Islamic terrorists that are allies of Iran. The second satellite can take photos and transmit them back to earth. This one is apparently the recently launched Fajr as it is only capable of 100 meter resolution (pictures taken allow the identification of any object 100 meters wide or larger.) You can get higher resolution photos on the web. But the point Iran is making here is that it is becoming less and less dependent on other nations for space satellites. The many sanctions against Iran make it increasingly difficult to buy satellites from foreign manufacturers so Iran must learn to build its own or do without.
When Iran could buy foreign satellites they did so and paid for foreign rockets to launch them. This is how Iran launched its first satellite in 2005. This was the Sina-1 communications and photo-reconnaissance satellite that was capable of performing espionage, especially against Israel. Launched on a Russian rocket, the satellite was described as being used for scientific purposes only. With a three year lifetime, the Iranians described camera equipment as capable of 50 meter resolution (pictures taken allow the identification of any object 50 meters wide or larger.) This is not military grade resolution. You can get better stuff from Google Earth.
Russia built the 110 kg (375 pound) Sina-1, and is unlikely to have secretly provided higher resolution (and much more expensive) camera gear. Besides, you can’t get high res equipment into a satellite of that size. Russia received a $132 million contract with Iran, to build and launch this satellite, so the Russians kept quiet about the Iranian claims. The “spy satellite” claim by Iran is apparently for domestic consumption, another attempt to show the Iranian people that the country is getting its money’s worth and to buff the country’s anti-Israeli reputation.
Even before Sina-1 Iran was getting caught using spies to steal Western satellite technology. They have had some success with this espionage and smuggling effort. Iran launched its second satellite in 2008 using a Chinese rocket. In 2012, for the third time in the previous three years, Iran put a satellite (Navid) into orbit using one of its own rockets. Navid was a 50 kg (110 pound) photo satellite with an estimated lifespan of 18 months. Navid was also used for testing other functions, like communications. Iran launched the Rasad-1 photo satellite in 2011. The first Iran launched satellite, Omid, was called an experimental telecommunications effort, and it went up in 2009.
Since 2005 Iran has been trying to get an Italian firm to let go of a $10 million Mesbah-1 telecommunications satellite built for Iran. Shipment of the satellite was halted when new sanctions were slapped on Iran, which made the paid-for satellite illegal for Italy to export. When Iran made the Mesbah-1 deal, the 75 kg (175 pound) satellite was to be launched using a Russian rocket. But now Iran has rockets that can launch small satellites, and wants to get their hands on Mesbah-1 and launch it themselves. But that won't happen with the sanctions. And even more recent sanctions make it illegal for Russia to launch the Mesbah-1. Since the Mesbah-1 was somewhat low-tech, Iran went ahead and built one itself.
In 2009, using a modified Shahab 4 ballistic missile, Iran put a crude satellite into low earth orbit. This was done to coincide with the 30th anniversary of their Islamic revolution. The satellite was described as a "communications satellite", but it was actually nothing more than a transponder, giving off a signal that could be tracked. What Iran has done is carry out the same kind of early satellite launches Russia and the United States did in the 1950s. Iran then announced that they were building more satellites and they have done that. But given the level of technology they have access to, these have been low capability birds, launched in to low orbit and have short lifetimes.
The Iranian launch is similar to the Russian Sputnik launch of 1957, which was the first satellite ever put in orbit. The U.S. followed in 1958. Since then, eight other nations, including Iran, have done the same. Ukraine was the last to do so, in 1995. Israel launched its first satellite in 1988. France launched its first satellite in 1965, Japan and China in 1970, Britain in 1971, and India in 1980.
Iran is continuing to combine ballistic missile and satellite launcher development. Most of the larger ballistic missiles, especially ICBMs, can launch satellites. The U.S. and Russia have used retired ICBMs for this. Iran is following the same path, sort of.