Rockets of Today

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


The world’s best-known shorter range ballistic missile is the Russian R-17, 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. The result was a missile called the Hwasong-7, which could reach targets 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.

This is what the Iranians turned to when they decided they wanted an orbital rocket. Scuds and their derivatives are single stage rockets which burn dimethylhydrazine hypergolically with nitric acid as the oxidizer, but for orbital use they fed the same engine with UDMH and nitrogen tetroxide. 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 twice as many 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. Then 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 has had four, or maybe 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.

But in 2020 a new Safir variant named Qased (messenger) did reach orbit. The Shabab-3 became a 3A, also known as Ghadr-101, which in turn became Ghadr-110, which provided the lower stages for Qased. Apparently the second stage 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 going to retire, they say. And the new administration is promising a much stronger spaceflight effort than what’s been done up to this point.

As of 2021 Iran is shifting further toward solid fuel, announcing a new 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.

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? — Qased 2/0/0 through 2022.

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 0/1/5? through 2022.