Iranian “Space Monkey” May Have Been Faked

February 2nd, 2013
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Last week, Iran announced that they had launched a monkey into outer space and returned it safely to the earth.   They claimed that this was a major milestone in Iranian aerospace technology and paved the way for human space launches.

The stunt was stupid, pointless and proved nothing.  For one thing, the rocket barely went into space at all.   The payload did not make it to orbit or even achieve an altitude sufficient for orbit.   It was a simple up-down ballistic flight.  The rocket reportedly reached an altitude of 75 statute miles.  That’s hardly a major technical achievement.   The Germans were launching missiles to similar altitudes back during World War II and any reasonably sized short range ballistic missile can reach such altitudes.   Just point a scud missile straight up and fire it to maximum altitude and this is what you get.

Putting a monkey in the nose-cone of a short range missile is also not very impressive.  It has no real scientific value, either.  Back in the 1950′s, when the US was sending monkeys and chimps into space, and the Soviet Union was sending dogs and guinea pigs, it was not known if mammals could survive he stresses of launch and extended periods of weightlessness.   Of course, it’s now known that they can and that humans can indeed function in space, so there’s little knowledge to be gained from sending a monkey into space for a few minutes.

It’s not a huge technical feat either.  A ballistic flight to those altitudes will not result in a huge amount of reentry heating or stress on the payload.  There’s no need for precise de-orbiting burns or control of where it lands (since it will invariably land in the general vicinity of the launch).   The only thing needed to assure the monkey makes it back alive is a capsule that is air tight and parachute system to deploy as it falls back to earth.

Yet simple and unimpressive as putting a monkey on a scud may be, numerous media reports have begun to question whether Iran is being honest about what happened.   For one thing, while video of the rocket launch was quickly publicized, there has been no video provided of the recovery of the monkey.   That seems strange, since recovering the payload and showing that the monkey is fine would be every bit as important as launching the rocket.

Additionally, the images shown of the post-mission monkey look considerably different than the photos of the monkey before launch.   The most obvious difference is that the monkey purported to have been  launched on the rocket has a mole above its right eye while the monkey shown after the launch has no such mole.   Beyond this, the facial features seem slightly different, the fur distribution is not the same and the color is also noticeably different, although this could be the result of camera and lighting conditions.

Since this discrepancy has come to light, Iranian officials have responded by stating that the photos do indeed show two different animals, but that this was simply a mistake in their release.  One of the monkeys is the actual monkey that was launched into space while the other was an archive photo of one of the other monkeys that was part of the program.   Iran has stated that they had five candidate monkeys ready for the flight.

It’s possible that this is the case, but there is still some reason to question the validity of this claim.   The post-launch monkey is clearly the one that Iran has claimed was on the rocket, as pictures of the monkey being shown to dignitaries and presented publicly have been shown.   Yet no pictures of that monkey seem to have been published before the launch.   The pre-launch monkey (the one with the mole) appears in numerous pictures including those of the monkey strapped into a harness for launch.   It’s possible that this was just part of the testing and training protocol, but it’s still a bit strange that many pictures of the same monkey could be mistakenly released.

If the photos were indeed faked, with a stand-in monkey intentionally used for post-launch photographs, then the most likely explanation is that the monkey did not survive the trip.   It’s entirely possible that the parachute recovery system on the capsule malfunctioned or that the capsule failed to separate from the rocket.  It is also possible that the capsule either lacked sufficient breathing air to keep the monkey alive or was not recovered before the supply of fresh air was depleted.

Such problems are not uncommon and indeed the United States lost six monkeys during rocket tests in the late 1940′s before one finally survived the trip.   One monkey died due to lack of oxygen in the capsule.  One died when the V-2 rocket exploded and another three died as a result of parachute malfunctions.   Finally, in 1951, a monkey was launched on a US rocket and made it back alive.  In 1959, the US suffered a high profile loss when a monkey named Gordo died, again, due to a parachute malfunction.  Yet another monkey died when an Atlas rocket exploded.

If Iran did indeed fail to recover the monkey, it seems perfectly in line with the general culture of the Iranian government to try to cover up the loss.  Iran is not prone to admitting failure, even when there is strong evidence to indicate so.   Failing at such a basic and relatively easy technical feat would certainly be an embarrassment.

On the other hand, if there was a genuine photo mixup and Iran manage to launch a monkey on a rocket, it really does not prove anything.   This kind of achievement might be groundbreaking in the 1940′s, but today it’s nothing more than a stunt and not a very impressive one either.  Iran had already claimed to have launched rats, worms and turtles into space on a similar rocket.  Launching a monkey is no more of an accomplishment.   In fact, it could just have easily been a brick.


This entry was posted on Saturday, February 2nd, 2013 at 10:54 am and is filed under Bad Science, Events, Good Science, History, Space. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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20 Responses to “Iranian “Space Monkey” May Have Been Faked”

  1. 1
    DV82XL Says:

    Well I am glad someone is saying it. While Iran is certainly a nation that the world needs to keep a eye on, I am getting a bit tired of watching the propaganda machine try and turn it into a threat of the same proportions that the Soviet Union was in its day. In particular I do not buy into the idea that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons capability to threaten anyone with a first strike posture. Anyone who has the slightest understanding of nuclear warfare knows that this would take a huge arsenal not only of warheads but delivery systems far beyond the capacity of that country to produce.

    Like North Korea the nuclear weapons program in Iran is more to create weapons to defend against the threat of invasion than to project might beyond its borders.


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  2. 2
    Anon Says:

            DV82XL said:

    Like North Korea the nuclear weapons program in Iran is more to create weapons to defend against the threat of invasion than to project might beyond its borders.

    Also to remove the only source of legitimacy of the theocracy (even if they don’t intend it).


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  3. 3
    Q Says:

            DV82XL said:

    In particular I do not buy into the idea that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons capability to threaten anyone with a first strike posture. Anyone who has the slightest understanding of nuclear warfare knows that this would take a huge arsenal not only of warheads but delivery systems far beyond the capacity of that country to produce.

    Like North Korea the nuclear weapons program in Iran is more to create weapons to defend against the threat of invasion than to project might beyond its borders.

    Really? I always thought the primary motivation was internal propaganda and to make the leadership seem strong especially to their own people and assert their sovereignty. Especially with N. Korea I got the message that it was pretty much saying “The outside world said don’t develop nuclear weapons. We don’t take orders from them. We will do it if we want and nobody can stop us.” And also it’s a way of showing they are advancing their own strength and domestic science and industry. Both nuclear weapons and spaceflight can be thought of as milestones in a country’s development into a major world power.

    I think that this stunt is designed to be a propaganda story to say that Iran is on its way to becoming a major spacefaring nation to complete with the US, Russia, China etc. Hence, sending the monkey up, which they are already claiming is some kind of prelude to an all out manned iranian space presence. I think that what they are trying to do is rally the country behind that and make others think they are becoming a big aerospace power.

    Of course, that really isn’t what this amounts to. Sticking a monkey in the nose cone of a small sounding rocket is not a huge achievement, but they will try to make it into one.


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  4. 4
    Mark Says:

    The stunt did exactly what it was supposed to.

    Iran shoots a short-range unguided rocket into the air and nobody cares.
    Iran shoots a short-range unguided rocket into the air with a monkey on it and the world goes nuts.

    Some newspapers even mistakenly said the monkey went into orbit. They wanted attention and they got it.


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  5. 5
    DV82XL Says:

            Q said:

    I always thought the primary motivation was internal propaganda and to make the leadership seem strong especially to their own people and assert their sovereignty.

    You are right – there are several reasons for these countries to mount nuclear programs – what you mention is one of them, but the military justification is defense, the same as it was for India and Pakistan, not to project a nuclear threat per se.

    I admit the difference may seem moot, but developing a weapon system that would deter any attempt at a full invasion (and all of these four countries have legitimate fears of such) is not the same as developing one to extend the threat of force beyond one’s borders. Western propaganda has always implied the latter motivation but I simply do not see evidence to support that contention.


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  6. 6
    Kim Says:

    Poor little guy! He looks terrified.


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  7. 7
    Engineering Edgar Says:

    Yeah a pointless stunt. Stick a monkey in a glorified scud and send it up and down. Not much of an accomplishment. if they didn’t even pull that off and the monkey died, that’s just embarrassing. Really? Haven’t even gotten to the point of the self deploying parachute?

    I don’t see what this has to do with nuclear weapons anyway. Maybe some sabre-rattling but I saw the rocket and it did not look big enough to carry any warhead iran would be likely to make. Also, it’s not like it could threaten anyone with a rocket that size. We’re not looking at anything like an ICBM here.


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  8. 8
    Robert Sneddon Says:

    Iran has already put a couple of small satellites into orbit, same as Israel but they’ve not succeeded with live cargoes before this, if they didn’t in fact “scratch” the monkey during this flight. A “glorified Scud” like most short-range missiles has the wrong acceleration profile for “canned monkey” flights as it’s designed to get off the ground fast before it can be shot down by attackers or close-in antiaircraft missiles.


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  9. 9
    Anon Says:

    Looking at the thrust of the rockets Iran has access to and their mass they would not have had an excessive acceleration profile for a monkey flight.

    On launch it wouldn’t even exceed 2 G.


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  10. 10
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Robert Sneddon said:

    Iran has already put a couple of small satellites into orbit, same as Israel but they’ve not succeeded with live cargoes before this, if they didn’t in fact “scratch” the monkey during this flight. A “glorified Scud” like most short-range missiles has the wrong acceleration profile for “canned monkey” flights as it’s designed to get off the ground fast before it can be shot down by attackers or close-in antiaircraft missiles.

    Given the relative isolation of Iran, I admit that it’s impressive they managed to orbit a couple of small satellites on their own. The aerospace industry of Iran has been surprisingly effective for its size. But I still don’t think this was in any way an achievement. It may not have been a scud, but the rocket in question is just a modest sounding rocket. And like I said, it could just has easily have had a brick in the nosecone as a monkey.


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  11. 11
    I'mnotreallyhere Says:

    Thing is, I can’t help wondering if their propaganda is stupid enough to be true. Surely it’s not too hard to find a pair of very similar looking monkeys if you want to try to fake this sort of thing. Clearly it’s just a stunt, clearly it doesn’t mean very much, but the country desperately wants to look like it’s a major world power. But you’d think they could have been cleverer about it.

            DV82XL said:

    I admit the difference may seem moot, but developing a weapon system that would deter any attempt at a full invasion (and all of these four countries have legitimate fears of such) is not the same as developing one to extend the threat of force beyond one’s borders. Western propaganda has always implied the latter motivation but I simply do not see evidence to support that contention.

    Of course even when they do develop defensive weapons, when it suits the people at the top, those weapons are often portrayed as being capable of long range strikes, as happened with Iraq.


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  12. 12
    magne moe Says:

    Well Iran has an history of photoshop use.
    https://www.google.no/search?q=iran+rocket+photoshop&hl=no&safe=off&tbo=u&tbm=isch&source=univ&sa=X&ei=vIEPUbGiOaqO4gSg6ICoDw&ved=0CD8QsAQ&biw=1242&bih=826
    Note this was an launch for four short range artillery rockets, as in live fire exercise, something who should be done multiple times each year. You want to launch multiple rockets to hit enemy
    One of the rockets failed to launch, this is not surprising, its training and you typicaly use old rockets or shells for this sort if thing, old as in close to expire date.
    Handling dudes is also an part of the training so this is actually not an bad thing.

    The rockets look a lot like frog rocket, single rocket fired from an truck however smaller. This is an pretty obsolete weapon.
    Now for some strange reason they decided to photoshop this image to make it look like all rockets fired, then publish it to show how powerful Iran is.

    I find it pathetic, Iran does a lot of spin about new high performance weapon systems, this is for internal use and is rarely real weapons or even real development projects.
    Yes they are smart, one interesting weapon is the one hezbolla hit an Israel warship with, not something high performance, an anti-ship missile on an truck but it worked and is useful.

    Putting an small satellite in orbit if far more impressive.


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  13. 13
    Robert Sneddon Says:

            magne moe said:

    Putting an small satellite in orbit if far more impressive.

    They’ve done it twice with their own hardware. Britain, a much more technically ept country has only ever succeeded once.


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  14. 14
    George Carty Says:

            Robert Sneddon said:

    They’ve done it twice with their own hardware. Britain, a much more technically ept country has only ever succeeded once.

    That’s what oil revenue does for you! Britain no doubt has the ability to do a proper space program, just not the willingness to spend the money to do it.


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  15. 15
    Robert Sneddon Says:

    The lack of a true-blue British launcher has been much criticised in the years since the Black Arrow programme fell to pieces — there’s a wonderful garage-startup feel to the actual achievement of putting our only satellite in orbit as the launch went ahead even after the government pulled the plug on the project — but the UK punches well above its weight in satellite construction with little companies like Surrey Satellite Technology (which I was peripherally involved with long before it went successfully commercial) as well as the big guys like BAe.


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  16. 16
    Magne Moe Says:

            George Carty said:

    That’s what oil revenue does for you! Britain no doubt has the ability to do a proper space program, just not the willingness to spend the money to do it.

    Problem with an national launch capability is that you can buy it far cheaper. You only need an national capability for military satellites and prestige. Guess UK has no problem getting military launches from the US and for prestige I would bought an launch, an stock transfer stage and put an small rover on the moon.
    For Iran its pure prestige, yes they has some need for com and recon satellites however they are far from getting something useful here.


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  17. 17
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Robert Sneddon said:

    They’ve done it twice with their own hardware. Britain, a much more technically ept country has only ever succeeded once.

            George Carty said:

    That’s what oil revenue does for you! Britain no doubt has the ability to do a proper space program, just not the willingness to spend the money to do it.

    I don’t know that it’s entirely fair to say Britain does not have a proper space program. While it’s true that there was only one 100% British-built launch system that achieved pretty limited success, the first European-developed launch systems were based on the Blue Streak as the first stage. This leading to the British being one of the most important members of the ESA.

    It was (and is) a simple economic decision. It’s cheaper to share the costs. There’s not a lot of point, aside from national pride, in having neighboring countries develop systems of similar capability.

    One could make the argument the US did the same with the ISS. One could say “The US should have its own proper space station.” The ISS was at least in part due to a desire to create an internationally cooperative effort. However, part of it was that NASA was getting hung up on building a reliable service module and propulsion system for a space station and it was much cheaper and faster to just hook the modules up to a proven Russian system.

    In any case, it’s not like anyone can deny the UK has a world class aerospace industry in BAE systems.


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  18. 18
    Atomikrabbit Says:

    “Some people call me the Space Monkey
    Some call me the Ayatollah of Love
    Some people call me Mahmoud
    ‘cos I speak of apocalypse from above.”

    (deepest apologies to Steve Miller… and all who read this)


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  19. 19
    Christopher Willis Says:

    Ars just did a new piece on the Iranian ‘fiber glass’ stealth plane

    http://arstechnica.com/business/2013/02/world-trembles-in-confusion-andor-fear-at-irans-fiberglass-airplane/#image-1

    If this is the level of their weapons program, makes you feel a little better about their nuclear weapons situation. There is commentary on each picture, and each is pretty classic.


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  20. 20
    Karina Says:

    Hello i am kavin, its my first occasion to commenting anyplace, when i read this article i thought i could
    also create comment due to this good piece of writing.


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