Rockets of Today

SAFIR/QASED (سفیر/قاصد‎), UNHA (은하), SIMORGH (سیمرغ), CHŎLLIMA (천리마), and QAEM (قائم) — Iran, 2009 / North Korea, 2012


The world’s best-known short range ballistic missile is the Russian R-17 Elbrus, known in NATO countries as the Scud. Many countries bought these, but nobody tried to make anything orbital out of it, because it didn’t have anywhere near a useful range. But the North Koreans, having made their own Scud copies which they named Hwasong, decided to see how far they could push the technology, and embiggened the design to a substantially larger scale, maybe around fifteen tons. The result was a single stage missile called the Hwasong-7, which could reach targets over 1000 kilometers away.

As soon as the missile was ready, they promptly exported it to Iran, just as they had done with the classic Scud copies. It appears that the development of the larger version was largely funded by Iranian money, so they got to use the missile almost before its makers did. In Iran it became the Shabab-3 missile, and by 2001 they were building them locally. (Other variants found their way to Pakistan and maybe Libya.)

This is what the Iranians turned to when they decided they wanted an orbital rocket. Scuds and their derivatives burn UDMH (unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine) hypergolically with nitric acid as the oxidizer, but for orbital use they appear to have replaced the nitric acid with nitrogen tetroxide, which is the more usual pairing, for better performance. By adding one additional stage, the Iranians gave it just enough capacity to get a basic satellite into orbit. They called it the Safir (ambassador). This may not sound like an impressive space program, but the Iranians reached orbit three years before their North Korean friends did, and now have far more sats up.


Unha 3

When North Korea wanted a longer range ballistic missile, they continued the basic Scud engine design, but switched the fuel to kerosene, while still using nitric acid as the oxidizer. They then embiggened the booster by simply using four engines. This resulted in the Taepodong 2 ICBM, which got people scared because North Korea now also had a nuclear bomb to put on top of it. It more or less uses a Scud as its second stage. But this was never deployed as a missile. They decided that they wanted to boast of having orbital capability, so they added a third stage and came up with the Unha (Galaxy) 3. They got a satellite up on their third try in 2012, but of course claimed to have succeded in earlier attempts, since of all governments on Earth, theirs is the one most utterly dependent on bullshit.


Iran got a piece of this rocket as well, and is now working on a Simorgh (phoenix) launcher with a first stage based on it. But according to some sources, this one again uses conventional UDMH hypergolic fuel, though others say this is wrong and the fuel has not changed. It has a solid third stage... as best we know. It’s sometimes just been called the Safir 2. After one successful suborbital test, the Simorgh had five consecutive failures to reach orbit. They’re being cagey about it, so we don’t know what the real objectives were, or whether that fifth launch really was a Simorgh or not. In 2024 they finally got one to stay up.

Qased and Qaem

But in 2020 a new Safir variant named Qased (messenger) did reach orbit. The Shabab-3 missile had become a 3A, also known as Ghadr-101, which in turn became Ghadr-110, which provided the lower stages for Qased. It’s actually smaller and lower thrust than the Safir, despite their common ancestry. Apparently the second stage (dubbed Salman) is solid in the 110, and the third stage added for Qased is also solid. It’s operated by the military instead of by the space agency. The original Safir is now retiring, they say. And the new administration is promising a much stronger spaceflight effort than what’s been done up to this point. The Qased drew ire from countries that regarded it as too close to ICBM development. The fact that the Revolutionary Guard now has a better space program than the civilian agency is probably worrying to groups such as the Mossad, who are rumored to have assassinated General Hassan Tehrani-Moghaddam in 2011 specifically to thwart their rocketry program.

But the Safir hypergolic first stage may have just been a transitional step. After just two years the military flew a successor to the Qased named the Qaem or Qaim (upright), which has a solid first stage they call Rafe, giving it a lot more thrust than the Qased. The upper stages are as before, apparently. The sats it lifts are no bigger than about 80 kilograms, which might be about twice what Qased could do — it’s unclear what the precise figures are. The Qaem-100 is Iran’s first launcher to not use any North Korean technology. It’s also the first to launch more than one satellite at a time.


Iran is apparently still shifting toward solid fuel, announcing a new civilian rocket in the works named the Zoljanah (after a legendary horse), which is also the name used for the giant truck that it will launch from. It has two solid stages and a liquid topper. Not much is known yet, but the target capacity is a few hundred kilograms. They announced at the same time that the Safir was now retired, though the Zoljanah was still far from ready. By 2024 the Safir had been out of service for five years and the Zoljanah had only accomplished two suborbital tests.

Chollima... and something newer

Back in North Korea, they’ve also got a new rocket named after a legendary horse (which was also used as the name of an ideology that workers are supposed to believe in within the country), the Chŏllima-1. In a first for North Korea, they actually admitted that the maiden launch attempt was not a success. (By this time the country had emerged from its period of desperate poverty and had embraced some mild economic reforms, so the immense gap they’d developed between reality and propaganda started to reduce to a somewhat more normal size.) And likewise for the second failed attempt, which followed after less than three months. The third try came three months after that, and succeeded. Unfortunately, little is known about the rocket, though apparently the South Koreans managed to pull a piece of the first one out of the ocean before the North got there. Because of this, on subsequent launches they started blowing up the booster after it was done staging.

It looks like the main stage may have been related to the Hwasong-15 missile, which is based on technology from Russia’s RD-250 engine — a Soviet-era hypergolic motor with dual nozzles and enough thrust to lift somewhere around sixty tons. (A version of that engine powered the discontinued Tsyklon rocket, which used three of them.) This may mean that the more primitive Unha is not coming back.

And then they came up with something even newer. It doesn’t have any name yet, other than “new-type satellite carrier rocket”. It’s North Korea’s first cryogenic rocket, burning kerosene and lox. Some analysts think the engine is a Russian RD-191, and maybe the whole first stage is basically just an Angara core (a shortcut that South Korea had taken a decade earlier), but they claim it’s a newly developed engine. They have been getting renewed support and technology transfer from Russia, as Kim Jong Un has been one of very few national leaders to support Putin’s attempt to conquer Ukraine — even supplying them with ammo and equipment as Russia’s factories fail to keep up with the devastating losses that they’ve brought onto themselves. So either way, it’s probably Russian engineering in there. Lots of Russians were apparently seen around their rocket facilities.

So they loaded a spy satellite onto this mystery rocket and sent it up. Before long the engine misbehaved, and they sent it a self-destruct command. Kim wants three more military launches this year, so they’re bound to try again pretty soon.

For South Korea’s response to the Unha, see KSLV.

Safir-1: mass 26 t, diam 1.25 m, thrust ~290 kN, imp ~2.5 km/s, gas generator (UDMH), payload ~0.05 t (0.2%), cost unknown, record 6/2/2? (final?) for Safir — Qased 3/0/0 through 2023.

Unha-3: mass 90 t, diam 2.4 m, thrust 1200 kN, imp 2.5 km/s, gas generator (kerosene and nitric acid), payload ~0.35 t (0.4%), cost unknown, record 2/0/2 (may be final).

Simorgh: mass 87 t, diam 2.5 m, thrust 1300 kN, imp 2.5 km/s, gas generator (UDMH?), payload 0.15 t (0.2%), cost unknown, record 1/2/4 through April 2024.

Chŏllima-1: mass ~60 t?, diam ~2.4 m?, thrust ~1600 kN?, imp unknown, gas generator? (UDMH?), payload ~0.3 t?, cost unknown, record 1/0/2 through 2023.

Qaem-100: mass unknown, diam 1.25 m?, thrust ~670 kN, imp unknown, solid fuel, payload ~0.08 t?, cost unknown, record 1/0/1 through June 2024.

unnamed “new type”: mass unknown, diam unknown, thrust unknown, imp unknown, unknown cycle (kerosene), payload unknown, cost unknown, record 0/0/1 through June 2024.