Iran’s Failed Simorgh Launch of the Payam Satellite

On January 15 Iran announced that the mission to launch the Payam (messenger) imaging satellite into a stable orbit had failed. Iran’s minister for telecommunications stated that the failure occurred in the third stage of flight. This has quickly come to be widely taken to mean that the Payam mission experienced a third stage failure of the Simorgh space launch vehicle.

That’s interesting, because the Simorgh was widely known to be a two stage rocket. The images below depict the Simorgh’s stage configuration

The first, booster stage, engines are visible from this angle. The Simorgh booster employs 4 Nodong engines, the same engines used on Iran’s Shahab-3 medium range missile, North Korea’s Nodong medium range missile and the Unha space launch series.

The second stage engines are visible here. These are small low thrust verniers. We will return to these two stages later.

As can be seen from these images there isn’t any obvious third stage. The Simorgh has a clam shell payload fairing. See below (the annotated image comes from a geeky space flight forum so is speculative).

I could have sworn that the Wikipedia entry for the Simorgh previously stated that it’s a two stage rocket. Now it gives three stages, but as can be seen from the main box right of the page there’s nothing said of the third stage and the box appears to have been configured to describe a two stage rocket. Whoever (may have) amended the page didn’t do a good job of it (some of the references cited give two stages). I am not enough of a computer head to check whether the page was indeed so amended. There’s probably a trivial way of doing that, but if so I’m not cluey enough to know of it.

Michael Elleman in an International Institute for Strategic Studies analysis here also attributes the Payam failure to the third stage

The Simorgh is a three-stage rocket… Snip …The third stage consists of a newly designed, Iranian-produced solid-fuel motor weighing less than a tonne. Apparently, this new motor either failed to separate from the second stage and ignite, or it malfunctioned during operation

What Elleman is doubtless referring to is the small Saman solid fuelled motor. An analysis of Iran’s space programme published by the Washington Institute here says of the Saman solid rocket motor the following;

In 2016, Iran unveiled its first orbital upper-stage Saman-1, said to have been designed for placing a piggybacking 100-kilogram satellite into a 400-by-700-kilometer low-elliptical orbit

There are images of what is taken to be the Saman solid rocket motor here at Norbert Brugge’s webpage, a superb resource and frankly the go to place for rocket and missile engine specs. The web resource is very impressive. See below for some of these.

That’s consistent with the Payam mission specs. The Payam satellite had a mass of 90-100kg and was to be delivered to a low earth orbit. Take a look again at the Simorgh payload fairing images. Do you think you can slip into there a 90-100 kg satellite and the Saman motor? Here’s an image of the satellite

Statements attributing the loss of Payam to a Simorgh third stage failure are quite categorical, yet what the Iranian telecommunications minister himself said is more ambiguous. Recall he stated that the failure occurred because something went wrong in the third stage of flight not necessarily with the third stage of the rocket. He also stated that the failure essentially can be attributed to the Payam not attaining sufficient velocity (or better still momentum so enough velocity given its mass) for successful orbital insertion. According to the chancellor of Amirkabir University of Technology, where the satellite was manufactured, the satellite was delivered to a “300 second orbit” (better still suborbit) whereupon it reentered the Earth.

I don’t think we have enough information to be categorical about a third stage failure. The Iranians have stated that the cause of the Payam failure was trivial and would be fixed in a matter of months. Notice that the Iranian article just linked stated; “the satellite failed to reach the required speed on detachment from the rocket in the third stage.” A stage failure of a rocket most often would not be regarded a trivial failure.

The Iranian have pursued a methodical space programme and there’s no indication that in its flight testing programme the Simorgh employed a third stage. See here. Indeed one of those tests occurred in 2017 a year after development of the Saman solid rocket motor (according to The Washington Institute published analysis above). I’m not saying that there wasn’t a third stage and that it didn’t fail. I’m saying we cannot be so categorical, and the thing is we are being categorical.

What might have happened is that the Payam mission failed because of failure of the payload separation mechanism. One of the jobs of the payload separation mechanism is to impart enough momentum to the payload, i.e. satellite, so that it might enter a stable orbit. On 8 January 2018, almost a year to the day, the Space-X launched Zuma mission suffered a catastrophic failure. Initially this was attributed to a fault with the Falcon-9 rocket, which put the heat on Space-X as the Zuma mission was to deliver an expensive classified government payload. However, we subsequently learnt that the Zuma mission failed due to failure of the payload separation mechanism, developed by a separate sub-contractor. Zuma did not separate from the second stage and so was deorbited. There have been payload separation mechanism failures throughout the space age as this history discusses here. As the history points out payload separation failures are not necessarily reflective of any fault with the booster. A payload separation mechanism can fail not only if the payload fails to separate, as in the case of Zuma, but if the mechanism does not impart enough momentum to the separating payload. The Zuma failure did not reflect upon the Falcon-9 and she has flown many a mission since. That squares with the Iranian claim about a trivial failure, that is the Payam failure does not reflect upon the Simorgh SLV whereas, presumably, a stage failure would.

Okay, there’s much more to the Payam mission than this. Of course, there’s the political aspect. Prior to and after the Payam launch Washington claimed that it was all really a thinly disguised ICBM test for a military programme, and that it violated UN Security Council Resolution 2231 codifying the JCPOA. The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, stated the Payam flight was an ICBM first stage test. This all of course is bullshit. The second stage of the Simorgh rocket does not have enough grunt for delivering a nuclear payload to large ranges, a satellite launch has nothing to do with testing the reentry dynamics of an ICBM, and the first stage of the Simorgh, as noted before based on four Nodong engines, is just like that of North Korea’s Unha series of SLVs.

The Unha too was widely attributed to be an ICBM in disguise but it has no bearing to the Hwasong-15 and 14 ICBMs. Indeed, even North Korea’s undeveloped ICBM precursor was not based on Nodong (better still Scud) derived technology (the KN-08 used R-27 SLBM derived engines). The Unha is poorly configured for a practical military weapon. Remember the very first sentence of LA-1 that is Robert Serber’s primer on the atomic bomb delivered at Los Alamos during World War Two. The purpose at Los Alamos was to “produce a practical military weapon.” As North Korea has demonstrated extrapolations of Scud technology are not the means toward a practical military weapon.

Furthermore, although ballistic missile and space launch technology are related the way matters have worked historically is that it is ballistic missiles that are turned into space launch rockets not space launch rockets into ballistic missiles. That’s a pattern holding from the V2 onward (in the sense that Braun and others were space nuts who recognised they had to work for the military to develop large rockets).

The Simorgh launch, and the associated mendacious kerfuffle, came hot on the heels of revelations that last year John Bolton asked the Pentagon for military strike options against Iran following a minor attack by Shia militia in Baghdad. The mendacity behind the claims that the Simorgh launch was a disguised ICBM test fits into a broader policy of creating instability in order to create stability. Basically, stability is a technical phrase meaning adhering to US preferences no matter the mayhem it entails. Mike Pompeo and John Bolton are creating instability in order to create stability, given that Iran pursues an independent foreign and strategic policy in the energy rich Middle East at variance with US preferences. I’m still not prepared to dismiss the thought that Mike Pompeo and John Bolton are talking to North Korea because they’re gunning after Iran either.