Iran said today that it has successfully sent a monkey into orbit and brought it back alive, an announcement that if true would represent a major scientific accomplishment for the Islamic republic and mark the latest step in the nation's quest to put a man in space by the end of the decade.
It should be noted, however, that the news came via state-run media and has not been independently confirmed. The initial report gave only vague details and provided no info on the timing or location of the launch or the landing. Still, the government offered at least a few pieces of photographic evidence to back up its story. The Associated Press explains:
Still images broadcast on state TV showed a small, gray-tufted monkey presumably being prepared for the flight, including wearing a type of body protection and being strapped tightly into a pod that resembled an infant's car seat.
The photos draw historical links to the earliest years of the space race in the 1950s when both the U.S. and Soviet Union tested the boundaries of rocket flight with animals on board, including American capsules carrying monkeys and Moscow's crafts holding dogs.
Iran had previously sent smaller animals into space, including a rat and a several turtles, and had successfully launched three satellites over the past four years, according to the AFP. A previous attempt back in 2011 to put a monkey in space failed, although no reason was ever given.
The latest mission would appear to be the biggest breakthrough yet for the Iranian space program. For comparison, the United States was the first nation to successfully put a live monkey into space way back in 1949—although it would be another decade before we would bring one back to Earth alive. (Our first attempt, in 1948, failed after the monkey apparently suffocated inside the capsule while it was still on the launching pad.)
While Iran has long denied its space program—like its nuclear work—is directly tied to its military ambitions, it hasn't gone unnoticed in the Western world that the same technology used to launch a rocket into space can also be used in ballistic missiles. [Update 10:31 a.m.: In case that link wasn't clear enough, an Iranian commander told state reporters in a separate announcement today that the nation plans to unveil new "long, intermediate and short-range missiles" sometime early next month.]