A long-range rocket on an Iranian launch pad.
One of the big revelations following North Korea's rocket launch was that Pyonyang may have had help from Iran in developing its rocket. Iran has had a long-range rocket program for some time now, helped in turn by North Korea's Soviet-era expertise, and its rocket program has now hit a new milestone: Iranian state TV claims Tehran has successfully lifted a monkey into space.
The launched peaked at 75 miles, and the monkey reportedly landed unharmed, which Iran says is a big step toward a manned program. According to the New York Times:
Press TV quoted the director of the Iran Space Agency, Hamid Fazeli, as saying earlier this month that “because of biological similarities between humans and monkeys, the latter were selected for the space mission.”
He also forecast that Iran would send a human into space within the “next five to eight years,” and said Iran would send its Sharifsat satellite into orbit before the end of March.
There was no independent corroboration of the report, which Press TV called evidence of “yet another” scientific achievement following earlier claims that satellites and living creatures had been launched into space.
Western monitors have not announced any missiles launchings by Iran in recent days.
It's Iran's second attempt at launching a monkey into orbit–the first was unsuccessful–and follows a bevy of other animal launches reported by Iran, including rodents, worms, and a turtle. Now, take it all with a grain of salt, as news outlets are mostly working off of what Iran has said. At the same time, it's no surprise that following North Korea's launch, which no one fully expected to succeed, authorities might be holding Iran's missile capabilities a little closer to the chest.
Update: Here's a photo of the monkey in question, who looks like he was packed by Ikea:
The Iranian astronaut monkey. twitter.com/MahirZeynalov/…— Mahir Zeynalov (@MahirZeynalov) January 28, 2013
The broader implications are murky as well. Iran looking to develop a manned space program is, at surface value, not shocking in the least. As space becomes privatized and more accessible, it really is the next realm of diplomacy, even if we're only talking about arguments over orbit and the Moon, versus full-on Intergalactic Congress type stuff. Iran's likely not going to get into some Moonraker-style space piracy, but having a serious space program helps the country stay relevant on the world stage.
More importantly to Western observers, Iran's mature missile technology is worrisome if you replace that monkey with a nuclear payload. Iran doesn't have nuclear capabilities yet, but diplomatic talks have still gone nowhere, and Iran's launch definitely turns up the heat at the negotiating table.
Also, North Korea does have nukes. Each new missile report suggests that Tehran and Pyongyang are sharing a healthy flow of ideas (their buddy-buddy status quite likely born out of their reps as the bad guys) about long-range missiles. There's no evidence yet that the country's nuclear scientists are working together–and for Iran, it's more of an issue of enriching uranium than figuring out how to build a bomb–but trading ideas about missiles is more worrisome than trading tech for solar panels, even if both countries are officially just working on their space programs.
Yet even that has its own issues: Until now space hasn't been a particularly crowded space, satellites aside, and the countries sending astronauts to orbit have all been cooperative with each other. What happens if a pariah like Iran starts sending astros into space? Should the West do anything about it? And what could, say, the UN do anyway? If anything, Iran's monkey launch shows that the space age is maturing, and we're rapidly approaching the time when space diplomacy is legitimately needed.