Earlier this week, Iran launched a rocket into space that authorities claimed carried a monkey. Following a successful return to earth, the Iranian government patted itself on the back:
Foreign observers interpreted the launch as political theatre designed to showcase Iran‘s scientific progress despite economic sanctions imposed by the West.
Iranian media claimed that the country’s space agency had sent the monkey 75 miles (120 km) above the Earth in a Kavoshgar rocket capsule named Pishgam (Pioneer).
Ahmad Vahidi, the Iranian defence minister said of the launch: “This success is the first step towards man conquering the space and it paves the way for other moves”, but added that the process of putting a human into space would be a lengthy one.
He also reassured anyone concerned about the monkey’s well-being that it made it back to earth unharmed saying: “The monkey which was sent in this launch landed safely and alive and this is a big step for our experts and scientists.”
It certainly would be a big step – if it were true. The problem for the Iranians is that they were stupid enough to release before and after pictures of the space faring monkey.
The picture on the left is of the monkey before the flight. The one on the right is supposedly from after the flight.
However, Iran’s achievement is now being brought into question after experts and novices alike doubted whether the launch actually took place and whether the monkey survived.
Before and after images of the monkey would appear at first sight to show strikingly different animals.
In the before images, the animal appears to have a large red birthmark over his right eye – which on arrival back on earth appears to have disappeared.
Observers have also pointed out that while photographs and video of the launch of the rocket have been widely distributed, there has been no photographic or other evidence proving that the rocket made it back.
The seeming inconsistency between the two images of the space-travelling monkey combined with the lack of evidence documenting the return of the rocket to earth has caused some to question if the launch took place, or indeed that if it did take place the monkey did not survive.
Iran has a history of falsefying pictures of its technological achievements, so faking a monkey launch would not be unexpected. The problem the Iranians have is convincing anyone they have achieved a level of technical competence that would allow them to succeed in putting a living thing in space and returning it safely.
At 75 miles up – the height they say the spacecraft achieved – they wouldn’t need much in the way of a heat shield to protect the passenger on his return to earth. But the spacecraft would still have to come back to earth at the right attitude to prevent tumbling, which would be fatal to the passenger. This requires precise thrusters that would manuever the spacecraft into descending at the right angle.
There is also the question of parachute deployment – a task that is either automatically performed or is signalled from the ground. This is, indeed, rocket science and the Iranians have never demonstrated a level of expertise that would give us confidence they had carried off the monkey in space feat.
Indeed, what tests have they performed that would show they had been working toward this goal? Their efforts to launch satellites have been hit or miss with zero confidence in the reliability of their missiles and launch systems.
In short, the Iranians have to give us a lot more evidence than their braggadocio before we believe them about monkeys in space.