Iran has inaugurated a new space center and says it aims to launch its own domestic-built satellite by early next year. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.
Iran has inaugurated its first major space center and launched a new rocket that it says is designed to carry an Iranian-made research satellite into orbit.
Iranian state-run television showed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad giving the order to launch the rocket, named Explorer-1.
He called it a giant step toward serving mankind and Iranian progress.
The television footage showed the rocket blasting off toward the sky. A small object could be seen parachuting back down to Earth, but it was not clear what it was.
Iranian media reports said the rocket went into space, but did not specify the altitude it reached. Last February, Iran launched another rocket that reached the edge of space, but did not get far enough away from Earth to go into orbit.
Space is considered to begin at 100 kilometers above the Earth's surface. The lowest satellite orbits begin at about 160 kilometers.
Iranian television said the Explorer-1 rocket is capable of carrying a satellite. President Ahmadinejad also unveiled Iran's first domestically built satellite, named Omid, or Hope. The state news agency IRNA said Iran intends to launch the probe aboard an Iranian-made rocket in a little more than a year.
Analysts remain skeptical about whether Iran's technical capabilities are as advanced as claimed. Mohammed Abdel-Salam is a non-proliferation specialist at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
He said it is not clear whether Iran will really have the capacity to launch a satellite in a year, and it would be a very difficult target to achieve.
Iran has been pursuing a space program for several years. It launched a Russian-built satellite aboard a Russian rocket in 2005.
Iran says the new space center is devoted to building and launching research satellites. It is located in the desert of Iran's northern Semnan province.
In Washington, a White House spokesman called the missile launch unfortunate, and said it will further isolate Iran from the international community.
U.S. and European officials have expressed concern about Iran's missile development program, especially when combined with its uranium-enrichment program. The technology required to make and launch rockets into space is much the same as that used to make and launch ballistic missiles that could be used to carry nuclear weapons. Iran has declared that both programs are peaceful.