A new Russian-made, Iranian-operated satellite launched to orbit on Tuesday, joining the growing cloud of devices circling the Earth. Though unlike your average SpaceX Starlink, the high-powered imaging satellite has U.S. intelligence officials biting their nails, concerned over what both Russia and Iran could be looking at down below.
Iran’s Khayyam satellite was launched into orbit on Tuesday morning, riding atop a Soyuz-2.1b rocket that took off from the Russia-leased Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, according to Iran’s state-affiliated Tasnim news agency. Iranian state news agency IRNA wrote that Khayyam, named after the 12th century Persian mathematician and poet, is already in its 310-mile-high (500-kilometer-high) orbit and is sending out its first bits of telemetry data.
The launch is part of a deal put together four years ago. U.S. officials previously told reporters that the satellite is equipped with Russian-made Konopus-V systems that include high-resolution cameras for looking down on the Earth. Officials even claimed that Russian space experts have trained Iranian ground crews who are planning to operate the satellite from a facility located in the Iranian city of Karaj.
Last week, the Washington Post reported that the satellite has the U.S. intelligence community in a tizzy. The U.S. is fearful that the satellite might not only be used by Iran to monitor military targets in Israel and around the Middle East, but to also help Russia spy on targets for its ongoing brutal war in Ukraine, according to anonymous sources familiar with the matter.
Indeed, WaPo cited two unnamed officials who said Russia would get first crack at the satellite’s imaging capability, operating it for several months to surveil potential military targets on the ground. Knowing Russia’s penchant for putting civilian targets in the line of fire, the potential for this new eye in the sky to pick out potential attack points is a sobering possibility.
But Iran has reportedly said it will have full operational control “from day one,” according to Al Jazeera. Instead, the the Iranian Space Agency (ISA) has said the digital orders sent to Khayyam will be encrypted and controlled by Iranian engineers and scientists. The orbiting satellite’s 3-feet (1-meter) resolution cameras will be used to monitor environmental data like radiation, among other scientific research targets, according to Reuters. Iran also said it may use the satellite to monitor the country’s borders.
ISA crafted four other satellites prior to Khayyam. Previous systems have been restricted to resolutions between 16 and 33 feet (5 and 10 meters), according to IRNA. The state-run news further quoted Iran’s director of space operations, Alireza Naimi, who said Iran will need another four months before it’ll start showing off images from its satellite. State-run news previously reported that the reason the launch was handed over to Russia was on account of the satellite’s “heavy weight.”
But it’s easy to see why military analysts believe this bit of space cooperation between Iran and Russia offers a new frontier for east/west antagonisms. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently visited his erstwhile Iranian allies, where he was quoted warning against “western deception.”
Russia has recently butted heads with the U.S. over satellites. Last week, Russia launched the mysterious satellite designated Kosmos 2558, which experts told Gizmodo was potentially sent up to stalk a similarly mysterious American military satellite in its orbit.
Long-coveted cooperation between the U.S. and Russia was further frayed in late July when the latter threatened to leave the International Space Station way ahead of its planned decommissioning. While the country quickly walked back that outburst, reports showed the U.S. had been making plans for what they would need to do to safeguard their presence in low Earth orbit.