Iran took a “big step” toward sending astronauts into space by 2020, successfully launching a monkey above the Earth’s atmosphere, Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi told state television.
Washington however said if the report on the launch was true, then Iran might have violated a UN resolution banning it from any activity relating to ballistic missile technology.
Arabic-language channel al-Alam and other Iranian news agencies said the monkey returned alive on Monday after travelling in a capsule to an altitude of 120km for a sub-orbital flight.
“This success is the first step toward man conquering space and it paves the way for other moves,” Vahidi said, but added that the process of putting a human into space would be a lengthy one.
“Today’s successful launch follows previous successes we had in launching [space] probes with other living creatures [on board],” he said, referring to the launch in the past of a rat, turtles and worms into space.
“The monkey which was sent in this launch landed safely and alive and this is a big step for our experts and scientists,” Vahidi said.
Iranian state television showed still pictures of the capsule and of a monkey being fitted with a vest and then placed in a device similar to a child’s car seat.
A previous attempt in 2011 by the Islamic republic to put a monkey into space failed. No official explanation was ever given.
A defense ministry statement quoted by Iranian media said earlier that Iran had “successfully launched a capsule, codenamed Pishgam (Pioneer), containing a monkey and recovered the shipment on the ground intact.”
It did not give details on the timing or location of the launch.
Earlier this month Iran announced its intention to launch a monkey into orbit as part of “preparations for sending a man into space,” which it aims to do by 2020.
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has indicated on several occasions the intention to launch an astronaut for “observation” purposes by Iran’s scientists.
A deputy minister for science, Mohammad Mehdinejad-Nouri, said in October 2011 that human space flight was a “strategic priority” for the country.
In Washington, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said she could not confirm whether the launch had really taken place.
“Our concern with Iran’s development of space launch vehicle technologies are obviously well-known,” she said.
“Any space launch vehicle capable of placing an object in orbit is directly relevant to the development of long-range ballistic missiles ... and they’re all virtually identical and interchangeable,” Nuland said.
UN resolution 1929 prohibited Iran from any such work, she added.
Iran’s space program unsettles Western nations, which fear it could be used to develop missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
The UN Security Council has imposed on Iran an almost total embargo on nuclear and space technologies since 2007.
Tehran has repeatedly denied that its nuclear and scientific programs mask military ambitions.
Iran’s previous satellite launches — Omid in February 2009, Rassad in June 2011 and Navid in February last year — were met by condemnation from the West which accused Tehran of “provocation.”