Did Iran Really Launch a Monkey Into Space?

Iran's Space-Traveling Monkey
Iranian space officials announced Monday (Jan. 28, 2013) that they have successfully launched a live monkey into space. (Image credit: Iran State TV/Powered by NewsLook)

Soon after Iranian officials announced they'd sent a monkey to space, close observers started wondering if the Iranians had been, as the saying goes, just monkeying around.

Photos published by the official state media ahead of the space monkey launch showed a distinctive monkey with a mole above its right eye. Yet footage of the creature after it had returned from its flight seemed to picture another monkey altogether, one without a mole, with darker fur, and with a changed facial structure and nose shape.

"It looks like a very different monkey, the nose, the features, everything is different," Yariv Bash, founder and CEO of Space Israel, a non-profit Israeli space organization, told the U.K.'s Telegraph newspaper. "This means that either the original monkey died from a heart attack after the rocket landed or that the experiment didn't go that well."

The discrepancy led many to cry foul, and suggest that Iran had faked its space success. [Was Iran's Space Monkey Launch Faked? (Video)]

A live monkey was reportedly launched into space aboard an Iranian capsule called Pishgam, which means "pioneer." (Image credit: Islamic Republic News Agency)

Yet Iranian space officials insist the monkey launch was genuine, and said that a different monkey was featured in pre-launch footage than the individual that was chosen for the real flight. A handful of animals had been trained for the mission, officials said, and the monkey that seemed least stressed and best prepared when the time came was chosen, senior Iranian space official Mohammad Ebrahimi told the Associated Press.

"I say this with certainty that the monkey is in good health and the space flight didn't have any physical effect on Pishgam," Ebrahimi said, referring to the monkey by its name, Pishgam, which means pioneer in Farsi. "Some of the photos released by one of news agencies were not related to the time of flight. They were archive photos of the monkeys being prepared for the launch."

And other experts say the monkey with the mole may have been the one that was launched on a test flight in 2011 that reportedly failed, though Iranian officials have never publicly spoken about that flight.

If the most recently monkey launch was in fact successful, it could pave the way for Iran to launch a human to space. The Islamic Republic's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has already volunteered to be the first to go.

While Iran maintains its space program is for peaceful, scientific purposes, critics warn that the same rocket technology used to loft monkeys to space could be developed to launch ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads.

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Clara Moskowitz
Assistant Managing Editor

Clara Moskowitz is a science and space writer who joined the Space.com team in 2008 and served as Assistant Managing Editor from 2011 to 2013. Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She covers everything from astronomy to human spaceflight and once aced a NASTAR suborbital spaceflight training program for space missions. Clara is currently Associate Editor of Scientific American. To see her latest project is, follow Clara on Twitter.