Iran admits test malfunction caused rocket explosion
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Iran admits test malfunction caused rocket explosion

Researchers piece together details of US orbital reconnaissance program from blast site image tweeted by Trump

This satellite image from Planet Labs Inc., that has been annotated by experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, shows a fire at a rocket launch pad at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in Iran's Semnan province, August 29, 2019. (Planet Labs Inc, Middlebury Institute of International Studies via AP)
This satellite image from Planet Labs Inc., that has been annotated by experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, shows a fire at a rocket launch pad at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in Iran's Semnan province, August 29, 2019. (Planet Labs Inc, Middlebury Institute of International Studies via AP)

Iran has for the first time acknowledged that a rocket explosion took place at its Imam Khomeini Space Center, with an official saying a technical malfunction caused the blast.

Government spokesman Ali Rabiei made the statement on Monday in comments broadcast by Iranian state television. He said the explosion caused no fatalities and also that officials had found no sign that sabotage was involved in the explosion. Satellite photos showed a rocket on a launch pad at the space center had exploded Thursday. The space center is located about 240 kilometers, or 150 miles, southeast of the capital, Tehran.

US President Donald Trump on Friday tweeted a surveillance photo likely taken of the site by an American spy satellite. He wrote that the US had nothing to do with the blast. Asked by reporters where he got the photo, which included annotations pointing to damaged vehicles and the launch gantry, he told reporters, “You’ll have to figure that one out yourself.”

“The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran,” Trump wrote alongside the picture. “I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One.”

The president stated that he had “the absolute right” to tweet the reconnaissance image, whose publication has led a number of weapons researchers and astronomers to speculate on Twitter regarding what it could reveal regarding America’s orbital intelligence gathering capabilities.

“Google Earth shows that the launch pad is about 60m in diameter, while the launch pad is about 600 pixels wide in the picture,” tweeted Cees Bassa of the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, in a thread shared by noted proliferation expert Dr. Jeffrey Lewis. “That suggests a resolution of at least 10cm per pixel, as the original image could have had a higher resolution.”

Other analysts were able to extrapolate the American spy satellite’s orbital position from the image.

For his part, Lewis stated that he “simply did not expect Trump to release a satellite image at that resolution.”

Iran claims its rocket program is for civilian use in space. However, because the rockets use similar technology to long-range ballistic missiles, Washington eyes the country’s activities suspiciously.

Washington and Tehran have been locked in a bitter standoff since last year, when Trump unilaterally pulled out of the 2015 deal that gave Iran relief from sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear program.

Among other reasons, Trump faulted the international agreement for not limiting Iran’s missile development.

In this photo provided August 31, 2019, by Iran’s Information and Communications Technology, Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi looks at The Nahid-1 domestically-built satellite at the space research center in Tehran, Iran. (Information and Communications Technology via AP)

Iran argues its atomic program is to develop nuclear power capabilities, but the United States, its ally Israel and Iran’s other rivals in the region say that this is a cover for a weapons push.

Tensions have recently risen dramatically in the Gulf, where Iran has seized tankers and the United States is expanding its military presence.

The head of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards boasted in late August that it successfully test-fired a new missile and earlier this month Tehran unveiled three new precision-guided missiles, with its defense minister saying they show that the country is ready to defend itself in the face of US “viciousness and conspiracies.”

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