Updated Feb. 4 at 10:26 a.m.

Photos of an uncomfortable monkey surfaced this week after Iran’s Aerospace Organization said it launched a Pioneer Explorer Satellite – and the monkey —  into space Jan. 28 and returned the primate safely to Earth.

But on Friday (Feb. 1), in a story headlined “Is Iran’s space monkey a fake?”, the Telegraph newspaper raised questions about whether the monkey actually returned from the suborbital flight:

A series of photographs that show differences in the monkey’s appearance, before and after the launch, appear to show two different monkeys.

Before the launch, several state-controlled media branches posted photographs of the monkey with a distinctive red mole above its right eye. It also had light fur round its head.

Upon the monkey’s “return” from space, the mole had vanished, as had the fur.

The photographs have led to speculation that either they launched the capsule into space, but it never returned, or that the launch never took place.

What happened? Monkey business? The Independent has a side-by-side comparison of the photos here.  

The Telegraph story says the U.S. State Department has doubts about whether the launch even took place. In this CBS News story, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said she could confirm “neither monkey nor launch … nor launched monkey.”

On  Saturday (Feb. 2), a senior Iranian space official told the AP that one of the two released photos did indeed show the wrong monkey, but he said it was due to a mixup, not malice.

“I say this with certainty that the monkey is in good health and the space flight didn’t have any physical effect on Pishgam,” [senior Iranian space official Mohammad] Ebrahimi said. “Some of the photos released by one of news agencies were not related to the time of flight. They were archive photos of the monkeys being prepared for the launch.”

Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer who tracks rocket launchings and space activity, also said this week’s monkey space flight was real, but he had a slightly different explanation for the photo mix-up. He claimed the light gray monkey with the mole died during a failed space mission in 2011.

“The monkey with the mole was the one launched in 2011 that died. The rocket failed. It did not get into space,” McDowell said. “They just mixed that footage with the footage of the 2013 successful launch.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Strategic Command declined to comment on Iran’s launch claim.

When contacted for confirmation, Strategic Command spokeswoman Ashley Henry wrote in an email that she could not comment on “intelligence matters” and relayed the following bullet points:

  • Our concerns with Iran’s development of space launch vehicle technologies are well-known, and we continue to monitor these developments closely.
  • Any space launch vehicle capable of placing an object in orbit is directly relevant to the development of long-range ballistic missiles as ballistic missile and SLV technologies are virtually identical and interchangeable.
  • UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1929 (2010) prohibits Iran from undertaking any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology.
  • We will continue to work closely with allies and partners to address Iran’s missile development activities, including by promoting implementation of the requirements of relevant Security Council Resolutions.

Iran has been accused of doctoring photos in the past. In 2008, photos of a missile test appeared to have been digitally altered

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.