(CNN)The Pentagon was watching as Iran attempted, and failed, to launch yet another satellite into orbit earlier this month, multiple defense officials tell CNN.
But while that previous effort, which took place in mid-June, was unsuccessful, Iran appears to be preparing for another attempt in the near future, as satellite imagery captured by commercial firms Planet and Maxar shows increased activity at Imam Khomeini Spaceport in recent days, according to experts at the Middlebury Institute of International Affairs at Monterey who analyzed the photos.
Fuel containers, support vehicles and a mobile platform are visible in satellite images taken of the site as recently as June 20, which the experts at Middlebury say is a key indicator that another launch could be attempted in the coming days or weeks.
The images also show increased vehicle activity at the Khomeini launch site, located nearly 200 miles east of Tehran, which experts say is another sign of a potentially imminent launch.
“U.S. Space Command is aware of the Iranian rocket launch failure which occurred early June 12th,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Uriah Orland said in a statement to CNN. It was unclear why the launch was unsuccessful and at exactly what stage it failed, officials said. Previous Iranian attempts at launching satellites into orbit have blown up on the launchpad or failed at a later stage.
The increased activity at Iran’s spaceport comes at a critical time in relations between Tehran and Washington. The two countries are in sensitive negotiations for a return to the Iran nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the potential easing of sanctions against Iran. The activity also comes in the final weeks of the term of President Hassan Rouhani, before he is replaced by the ultra-conservative judiciary chief Ebraham Raisi in August.
While the US defense officials did not identify the rocket that was used in the launch earlier this month, Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said it was likely the Simorgh rocket, a two-state space launch vehicle using engines based on a North Korean design.
“The failed launch attempt is the fourth consecutive failure of the Simorgh launcher,” said Lewis, author of an upcoming book on Iran’s space program. “Iran seems to be struggling with this specific system. Other Iranian rockets of different designs have been more successful.”
Critics of Iran see the satellite launches as a provocative step, since the rockets use technology similar to what is needed for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
“The Iranians have a long history of conflating the commercial and the military,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director at the Center on Military and Political Power at the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank. “Anything that Iran is doing in space I would be concerned about, because they are going to … use those same capabilities against us in a military conflict.”
After last April’s launch, Fabian Hinz, an independent open source a
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