Iran launches monkey into space

Lisa Grossman, physical sciences reporter

Last summer, the Iranian Space Agency announced their plan to send a monkey into space - and now they've apparently done it.

According to Iranian state-run television, a press release on the space agency's website, and photos of the event, Iran sent a live rhesus monkey into sub-orbital space aboard a small rocket called Pishgam, or Pioneer. There's even a video posted on YouTube that appears to be of the launch (though New Scientist could not confirm its authenticity).

The report has not been confirmed independently, however, and the US air force's North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has not reported seeing any missile launches from Iran.

But independent observers say the launch looks legitimate.

"Really, I see no reason not to take their word for it," says Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who also keeps a log of space launches. He says he's convinced by the photos and discussions he's had with several knowledgeable source in online forums.

In photos released on the Iranian Space Agency's website, the rocket looks like the same kind the agency has launched before, but with a larger nose cone designed to fit a small chamber that can support life. Images also showed a live rhesus monkey strapped to a small seat.

The reports say the rocket went straight up 120 kilometres, which McDowell says qualifies as outer space, but not high enough to reach orbit, and came back down with a parachute.

It's unclear exactly when the launch took place. The press release says that the launch happened on the birthday of Mohammed the Prophet, which is celebrated by Shiites on 29 January, but was celebrated last week elsewhere in the world.

Some countries worry that Iranian rockets capable of carrying animals or people could also carry weapons. Iran has denied any military intention.

"This is not a scary thing because this is not a big new rocket that could hit America or anything like that," McDowell says. "There's nothing military to this. It's purely for propaganda. Nevertheless, it advances their science and their technology by being able to do it."

Iran says the launch is a first step towards sending humans into space, which they intend to do in the next 5 to 8 years. To do that, McDowell says, they'll need to build a larger rocket. The country currently has a vehicle called Safir that has successfully put satellites in orbit, and is developing a more powerful launcher called Simorgh.

The next step will probably be to either launch Safir to carry a human to sub-orbital space, or an unmanned Simorgh flight into orbit to make sure mission controllers can return it to the ground safely.

"They don't want to repeat what the Soviets did" in 1957, McDowell says, "which is put a living being in orbit before you figure out how to get it back."

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