WASHINGTON — Following Iran’s launch of the country’s first military reconnaissance satellite, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized Iran’s space program as a cover for the development of ballistic missiles.

“For years, Iran has claimed its space program is purely peaceful and civilian. The Trump Administration has never believed this fiction,” Pompeo said in a statement April 25.

The April 22 launch of a military satellite by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps proves that “Iran’s space program is neither peaceful nor entirely civilian,” said Pompeo.

The IRGC tweeted that the launch of the Nour-1 military satellite on a Qased rocket to an orbit 425 kilometers above Earth was successful.

Pompeo said Iran’s space vehicles incorporate technologies “identical to, and interchangeable with, ballistic missiles, including longer-range systems such as intercontinental ballistic missiles” that could deliver nuclear weapons.

The latest warning from Pompeo comes more than seven months after the State Department announced the United States was imposing sanctions on the Iranian Space Agency and two of its research institutes “for engaging in proliferation-sensitive activities.”

The commander of U.S. Space Command Gen. John Raymond on April 25 tweeted that the United States was tracking two objects associated with Iran’s April 22 launch. Raymond’s tweet characterized the Nour-1 as 3U cubesat. “Iran states it has imaging capabilities — actually, it’s a tumbling webcam in space; unlikely providing intel. #spaceishard”

Observations from satellite watchers

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said the graphic on the rocket fairing suggests it is a 6U cubesat not a 3U.

“The public U.S. tracking data shows the two objects but not the raw radar data they are using to infer it is tumbling or to assess its size,” McDowell told SpaceNews in an email.

According to the Iranian government, it will take 10 days for them to stabilize the satellite and activate the imaging sensor, said McDowell. “So it’s currently a tumbling webcam, but next week it might be a stabilized webcam.”

McDowell commented that U.S. Space Command used the term “webcam” in a derogatory way. The Nour “is not like a modern NRO spy sat, but the same as the early Corona spy satellites which provided crucial intel in the early 1960s,” he said.

Nour-1 appears to have a relatively low resolution camera and the satellite is not yet stabilized, said McDowell. “Even if they manage to stabilize it, the intel capability it provides will be comparatively limited.”

Satellite tracker Michael Thompson said amateur satellite watchers have been able to pick up radio emissions from Nour-1 but have not yet been able to image the payload. “Ultimately, it’s probably better than a webcam, but not better than the wealth of imagery systems on the commercial market,” Thompson said.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...