Feb. 4, 2013 -- After Iran announced last week that it had launched a monkey into space, web sleuths compared before and after photos of the furry astronaut and cried hoax. They claimed the monkey that made public appearances after the space flight in a bespoke suit looked nothing like the animal that had been shot into space, which seemed to have lighter fur and a mole above its eye.
Did a monkey die in flight, asked the conspiracy theorists? Or did no primate ever leave the ground? Now the Iranian space agency has stepped forward to clear up any confusion. According to space official Mohammad Ebrahimi, it's true that the pictures don't match, and that they show two different monkeys.
But Ebrahimi said that's not because of a hoax – it's because the pre-flight photo of a light-furred monkey was actually an archival photo and not a picture of the actual animal, Pishgam, who rode the rocket. According to the Iranians, Pishgam took a 20-minute flight and returned to earth safely. In earlier media reports, the Iranians said the rocket itself was named Pishgam, Farsi for pioneer.
An American observer, Harvard astronomer James McDowell, had a more detailed explanation for the mismatched monkeys. He told the Associated Press that the mysterious monkey with a mole was a monkey that the Iranians launched into space in 2011. That launch failed, and the passenger died.
After last week's successful flight, Iranian state media quoted the head of the nation's space agency, Hamid Fazeli, as saying Iran decided to send a monkey into space "because of biological similarities between humans and monkeys."
Iran's Press TV billed the successful launch as a step toward being able to send humans into space, which Fazeli said will occur within the next five to eight years.
Over the past few years, Iran has made public its goal to complete a manned space mission -- a goal that has provoked concern from some U.S. politicians about Iran's true motives in developing new space technologies.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.