Launch 2020: Middle East Rivals Israel & Iran Orbited Reconnaissance Satellites

A Shavit launches the Ofek 16 satellite on July 6, 2020. (Credit: Israel Ministry of Defense)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

As part of our series on 2020 orbital launches, we look at two Middle East rivals — Israel and Iran — that launched satellites into space last year.

2020 Launch Record: 1-0
2019 Launch Record: N/A

Launch Vehicle: Shavit 2
Launch Site: Palmachim Airbase

A Shavit 2 booster launched the high-resolution Ofeg 16 reconnaissance satellite for the Israeli Ministry of Defense from Palmachim Airbase on July 6. Ofeg 16 is an advanced electro-optical satellite built with Israeli technology.

The four-stage Shavit 2 rocket flew west over the Mediterranean Sea to avoid dropping stages over populated areas. The majority of launches worldwide are conducted to the east to take advantage of the Earth’s rotation.

Shavit 2 is 26.4 meters (86.6 ft) in height with a diameter of 1.35 meters (4.4 ft) and a mass of up to 70,000 kg (154,324 lb). It is capable of launching 350-800 kg (772-1,764 lb) into orbit. The Shavit rocket family, which includes the smaller Shavit and Shavit 1 boosters, has a record of nine successes and two failures.

Israel Aerospace Industries was the prime contractor for both the rocket and the spacecraft. Israeli defense companies Elbit Systems and Rafael contributed to the mission.

Imam Khomeini Spaceport (Credit: Tasnim News Agency)

2020 Launch Record: 1-1
2019 Launch Record: 0-2

Launch Vehicles: Qasad, Simorgh
Launch Sites: Imam Khomeini Spaceport; Shahroud Missile Test Site

On April 21, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard used the Qased launcher to place the Noor reconnaissance satellite into orbit from the Shahroud Missile Test Site. It was Iran’s first successful satellite launch since February 2016.

The launch marked the first known use of the three stage Qased booster. The rocket is believed to be derived from the retired Safir launch vehicle family, with a liquid fuel first stage, a solid fuel second stage, and a liquid fuel third stage. Safir compiled a record of four successes, three failures and one unknown outcome between 2008 and 2019.

The Iranian Space Agency wasn’t as lucky last year. On Feb. 9, the failure of the Simorgh launch vehicle resulted in the destruction of the Zafar 1 Earth observation satellite. Iran did not announce a reason for the failure.

Simorgh has yet to orbit a satellite. The booster had a successful suborbital flight test in 2016. Simorgh’s second stage failed after firing for only 20 seconds during a flight test with no payload aboard in 2017. The booster’s third stage failed during a launch in 2019 with a payload aboard.

The Simorgh rocket is 26.5 meters (87 ft) tall with a launch mass of 87,000 kg (191,802 lb). It is capable of placing 350 kg (772 lb) payloads into a 500 km (311 mile) high Earth orbit.

The U.S. Department of Defense has condemned Iranian launches as a cover for ballistic missile development. Iran has denied the claim.