A scientist holds a live monkey ahead of the announcement via Iranian news agencies that scientists there had returned a monkey alive after it traveled in a capsule to an altitude of 120 kilometers for a suborbital flight on January 28.
Related Story: Iranian space official: Photo shows wrong monkey
Serious doubts are being cast on Iran's claim that it successfully sent a monkey into space and back earlier this week.
Several websites -- including the "Telegraph" and "The Times" of London -- homed in on seemingly contradictory images that Tehran offered as proof of its orbital achievement. Other reports also quote current and former rocket scientists questioning whether Iran has the knowhow to achieve the feat.
Close inspection of the video and still images in those articles suggests that the Iranians showed different monkeys.
One monkey, shown before the launch strapped into a padded seat, appeared to have light-colored fur and a red mole above its right eye. The other, shown tuxedoed in a post-mission video, appeared to be a dark-haired monkey with no mole.
Here's a link to "The Times" article that sets the monkey photos side-by-side.
Those discrepancies have kindled speculation that the mission -- whose coverage coincided with the 34th anniversary of the revolution that deposed the Shah and imposed Islamic rule on Iran -- was either unsuccessful or never even happened.
The U.S. State Department said it could not confirm whether the Iranian launch actually occurred. It was also quick to note that Iran is banned by UN Resolution 1929 from "any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology."
Below the comparative photos of the purported simian space traveler, the"Telegraph" item by Phoebe Greenwood in Tel Aviv quotes an Israeli source connected to efforts in that country to reach the moon with unmanned spacecraft:
“It looks like a very different monkey, the nose, the features, everything is different,” said Yariv Bash, founder and CEO of Space Israel, a non profit organisation working to send an unmanned Israel space ship to the moon.
“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,” Mr Bash concluded.
Iranian officials claimed on January 28 that the monkey had landed safely after its journey 120 kilometers above Earth.
The video that at least one Western news agency released of the launch was provided by Iranian international state broadcaster Press TV.
"[The rocket] 'Pishtam,' which translates to 'Pioneer Discoverer,' was successfully launched and took a monkey with it to the elevation of 120 kilometers away from the spot where it was launched," the PressTV reporter says, before quoting Iranian "officials [who] say Iran is ahead of other countries in the Middle East as far as space technology [is concerned]."
[UPDATE: After a full day of silence with speculation swirling, AP quoted a "senior Iranian space official" trying to explain the incongruity. Here's how the "Huffington Post" quotes the AP story:
Mohammad Ebrahimi also told the The Associated Press the monkey's name: Pishgam, or Pioneer in Farsi. The Iranian media originally said that the "Pishgam" was the rocket which reportedly took him Monday into space and returned him to earth after 20 minutes.
Ebrahimi said Saturday that photos of two different monkeys were released by the Iranian media. One was an archive photo of a backup monkey.]
Whether or not Iran's scientists managed the mission as they described it -- while it's something that a number of countries achieved decades ago, Iran obliquely confessed to killing the monkey in a similarly described test in 2011 -- the announcements have also raised alarm for what they might not be saying.
BuzzFeed reported it this way in a piece called "Experts Throw Cold Water On Iranian Space Monkey" that questioned Tehran's assertion of success and downplayed the significance of suborbital space travel at the same time:
The paltriness of the mission could be beside the point if it was intended as a cover for something else.
The monkey's space mission could just be a "fig leaf you put on a military program you want to disguise or you want to camouflage," said James Oberg, a retired rocket scientist and NBC News space consultant. "It's murky."
Yahoo News's Scott Sutherland intimated similarly in a post that asked whether the monkey launch was faked:
Even while the launch was initially reported, concerns had been raised that this was a cover-up for Iran testing missile launch systems, since Tehran has been banned by the United Nations from participating in any ballistic missile research or testing.
Iranian sources with official ties have lied before about tests that appeared to fly in the face of international opprobrium.
Western news agencies and websites were forced to apologize to readers in July 2008 after a photograph showing an Iranian missile launch was shown to have been doctored; the Iranian media arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) that supplied the picture was thought to have added a missile to the scene, seemingly for dramatic effect.
Another seeming case of photo fraud dates to 2007, when a photograph apparently distributed by the Fars news agency was alleged to have been edited to place U.S. tags on ammunition and weapons found in Iran.
Copyright (c) 2013 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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