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Mystery surrounds Iran’s satellite launch

A rocket at an Iranian space centre that was to conduct a satellite launch criticised by the US apparently exploded on its launch pad on Thursday, satellite images show, suggesting the Islamic Republic suffered its third failed launch this year alone.

While Iranian state media did not acknowledge the incident at the Imam Khomeini Space Centre in Iran’s Semnan province, a top official wrote on Twitter early on Friday that a satellite Tehran planned to launch was safe in a lab.

Satellite images by Planet Labs Inc. and Maxar Technologies showed a black plume of smoke rising above a launch pad there, with what appeared to be the charred remains of a rocket and its launch stand. In previous days, satellite images had shown officials there repainted the launch pad blue.

On Thursday morning, half of that paint apparently had been burned away.

“Whatever happened there, it blew up and you’re looking at the smoldering remains of what used to be there,” said David Schmerler, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Schmerler said that the images of the space centre suggested that the rocket could have exploded during ignition or possibly briefly lifted off before crashing back down on the pad. Water runoff from the pad, likely from trying to extinguish the blaze, could be seen along with a host of vehicles parked nearby.

NPR first reported on the satellite images of the apparent failed launch at the space centre, some 240 kilometres southeast of Iran’s capital, Tehran.

Iranian satellite launches had been anticipated before the end of the year.

In July, Iran’s Information and Communications Technology Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi said that Tehran planned three more launches this year, two for satellites that do remote-sensing work and another that handles communications.

The Nahid-1 is reportedly the telecommunication satellite. Nahid in Farsi means “Venus.” The satellite, which had Iran’s first foldable solar panels, was supposed to be in a low orbit around the Earth for some two-and-a-half months.

The semi-official Mehr news agency quoted Jahromi on Aug. 13 as saying that the Nahid-1 was ready to be delivered to Iran’s Defence Ministry, signaling a launch date for the satellite likely loomed. Iran’s National Week of Government, during which Tehran often inaugurates new projects, began Aug. 24.

On Twitter early Friday, Jahromi did not discuss the apparent rocket explosion, but asserted the Nahid-1 was safe.

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