The saga of the monkey that Iran may or may not have launched into space continues, with Iranian space officials now saying that what looks like a primate switcheroo is actually just an honest media mix-up -- not a hoax.
Last week, Iran’s state news agency broadcast images of a monkey astronaut they claimed was sent up to suborbital flight, more than 70 miles above Earth’s surface. But shortly after Iran announced the mission, several observers pointed out that photos released of a monkey being prepped for launch did not match the monkey that was presented later, post-flight, in a custom tuxedo. The preflight monkey had light-colored fur and a red mole over its right eye, while the monkey in the tuxedo was dark-colored and unblemished.
On Saturday, Iranian space official Mohammad Ebrahimi told the Associated Press that the light-furred monkey shown in the still photos was one of the alternate monkeys, not the one that went up in the capsule.
“Some of the photos released by one of news agencies were not related to the time of flight,” Ebrahimi told the AP. “They were archive photos of the monkeys being prepared for the launch.”
Ebrahimi says the monkey, named Pishgam, or "Pioneer," is in good health. (Iranian media originally reported that Pishgam was the name of the capsule that carried the monkey.)
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Some observers were skeptical that the launch even took place or thought that a monkey astronaut program could be a fig leaf for a missile-testing program.
Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, who tracks all space launches through his bimonthly newsletter, Jonathan’s Space Report, thinks that the Iranians likely have the capabilities to send a monkey up into space, as they claimed. But he still can't be 100 percent sure that the launch took place.
“With launches that go into orbit, we can be a lot more confident,” McDowell wrote in an email. But “with suborbital launches, the ones we are talking about here, ‘confirm’ is too strong a word.”
He also speculates that the monkey with the mole may have been a passenger on a previous, less-successful mission.
“It's certainly true that in summer 2011 the Iranians were saying ‘we're going to launch a monkey, we're going to launch a monkey,’ and then suddenly they stopped talking about it -- so it's a good guess they tried a launch and it didn't go well,” McDowell says. “But we really don't have any details.”
Most observers have been expecting the Iranians launch for about a year now, and the images of the launch on state TV seem like the real deal, according to McDowell.
“The video of the flight they have released would be hard to fake properly, and why bother,” McDowell says. “It would be easier for them just to actually launch the rocket.”
Iran says its monkey astronauts are a prelude to sending humans into space and is also planning to launch domestically made satellites next month.