Iran launched a research rocket and unveiled its first major space centre, state television reported Monday, the latest steps in a program many fear may be a cover for further development of its military ballistic missiles.

State television showed live images of the event, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad issuing the launch order.

Iranian officials have said they are developing a Shahab-4 missile to launch a satellite. Iran's powerful ballistic missile, the Shahab-3, is believed to have a range of at least 1,300 kilometres, putting Israel and much of the Middle East in range. In November, Iran said it had manufactured a new missile, the Ashoura, with a range of 2,000 kilometres.

Iran, which also unveiled its first domestically-built satellite on Monday, says it wants to put its own satellites into orbit to monitor natural disasters in the earthquake-prone country and improve its telecommunications.

Iranian officials also point to the United States' use of satellites to monitor Afghanistan and Iraq and say they need similar abilities for their security.

Iran has long declared a goal of developing a space program, but the same technology used to put satellites in space can also be used to deliver warheads. The country's space program, like its nuclear power program, has provoked unease abroad.

'Troubling development'

"It is just another troubling development," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "And, of course, the UN Security Council and other members of the international system have expressed their deep concern about Iran's continuing development of medium- and long-range ballistic missiles."

Despite concern over Iran's space program, it is not clear how far along it is, or whether the latest launch actually reached the internationally agreed upon beginning of "space," set at 100 kilometres above the earth.

Analysts have expressed doubts about certain technological achievements announced by Iran in the past. The country launched its first domestically-built rocket last February, which soared to the edge of space but did not reach orbit level.

On Monday, state-run television did not specify the altitude when announcing the launch. "With the launch, Iran has joined the world's top 11 countries possessing space technology to build satellites and launch rockets into space," it announced.

The lowest flying satellites — ham radio satellites — orbit between 160 and 500 kilometres up, while communication, weather and global-positioning satellites fly between 400 and 20,000 kilometres up.

President opens control station, launch pad

Before the launch, Ahmadinejad opened Iran's first major space centre, which includes a space launch pad and underground control station.

"We need to have an active and influential presence in space," he said.

The official news agency IRNA reported that the new domestically built satellite — called Omid, or Hope — would be launched into orbit sometime in the next 12 months.

In 2005, the government said it had allocated $500 million US for space projects in the next five years. That year, Iran launched its first commercial satellite into orbit from a Russian rocket in a joint project with Moscow, which appears to be the main partner in transferring space technology to Iran.

Iran hopes to launch four more satellites by 2010, the government has said.