Monkey Photo Embarrasses Iran, Calls Into Doubt Their Space Program

Quit monkeying around Iran, the world community seems to be saying. Very recently, Iran boasted of putting its very first primate into space and to bring him safely back to Earth. However, the image of a monkey, which Iranian officials claim is the ‘wrong picture’, has shattered Iran’s claims. People have several questions: did the landing happen? Did the monkey survive the journey? Or even, did the mission ever happen?

The monkey strapped up before being sent to space. (Photo Courtesy: AP/Getty Images)

Not the same Monkey!

Iran’s rocket Pishtam (meaning ‘pioneer’ in Parsi) was scheduled to carry a primate, a grizzly monkey, into space. The mission would last 20 minutes. The release of a picture showing a monkey which bears little resemblance to the one supposedly launched into space has now called into question the veracity of Iran’s claims. What happened to the other monkey?

The two monkeys

The new photo clearly shows a monkey with dark fur and narrower nose, while the one supposedly launched was grizzlier and had a distinctive red mole over the right eye.

The Pishtam launch vehicle. (Courtesy: AP/Getty Images)

The doubts increase further since there were no landing photos released by Iran, despite there being launch photos. Some are calling the whole mission a hoax, and it seems justified too!

The interest in Iran’s space launch is because any space launch capability directly influences the state’s ability to develop long-range ballistic missiles. Topped with a nuclear warhead and a regime not afraid to use nuclear weapons, this could be a deadly combination.

NASA’s Leap Into Deep Space: Newly Announced Rocket Really Packs A Punch!

NASA’s new generation rocket will be the biggest and baddest rocket ever built. It is the next generation rocket meant for carrying very heavy loads of cargo into space, thanks to a giant booster. It will eventually carry astronauts into space, but that is still a long way away. It is a first step towards NASA’s endeavor for Deep Space Missions.

This announcement by NASA was made yesterday (14th September, 2011).

The Space Launch System, as conceived of by an artist (Courtesy: NASA)

The Space Launch System

The new rocket is called the Space Launch System (SLS) and it will use liquid hydrogen in liquid oxygen as fuel to get the thrust that it intends to achieve.

The entire SLS program is worth at $18 billion, with the rocket alone costing $10 billion. This works out to $3 billion per year for NASA. The rocket will take some time coming, though. The first test flights are expected in faraway 2017.

SLS will use the still use the solid rocket boosters on either side of the SLS core main rocket. The carrying capacity is slated to be 70 metric tons initially, which will eventually touch 130 metric tons with upgrades. As for the amount of thrust, the SLS will deliver about 20 percent more thrust than the Saturn V rockets, which powered the Apollo missions. It will also be taller, at 403 feet, a clear 40 feet taller than the Saturn rockets.

Future bright, present controversial

This is the first concrete announcement of the future plan of progress for NASA after its 30 year Space Shuttle Program ended a couple of months back. In this time, NASA will be using private built rockets to journey to and from the International Space Station and, maybe, even have manned flights.

As with any big project, the SLS was recently embroiled in controversy after the Wall Street Journal published the news that NASA’s estimates for the SLS was nearly $63 billion! The source of this news was found to be a leaked memo and based on hypotheses, rather than facts. The actual costs are of the tune of $20 billion.

The rockets get bigger and bigger, trying to keep up with human ambitions in space.

Private Player, SpaceX, Plans To Dock With The International Space Station Later This Year

The future of American contribution in space seems to lie in the hands of private space companies. A private aerospace company, focusing on space flight, Space Exploration (or SpaceX) has been approved by NASA to send its Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station on an unmanned flight, scheduled sometime in late November and attempt a docking with the ISS in early December this year.

NASA has been relying heavily on private space vehicles to take up the mantle of ferrying hardware reliably to the International Space Station from its own space shuttle program. So much so that NASA has even been bottle-feeding them with cash  in order to help them grow. Even manned flight is now in the cards, but not in the near future.


SpaceX will attempt to fly its Dragon Space Capsule past the ISS as its first mission target on November 30th and then attempt a docking with the ISS on the 9th of December this year. SpaceX and NASA are both contemplating a combination of the two missions into one, which will involve a brief fly-by before a docking attempt.

The Dragon Cargo Ship made by SpaceX (Photo: SpaceX)

The four decade old Space Shuttle Program came to an end on the 21st of July this year after Atlantis landed and, since then, NASA has been looking at private players. SpaceX is a leader in this against three more players. As per revealed details of its contract with NASA, SpaceX will charge $1.6 billion for 12 cargo deliveries, making it $133 million per flight. This is tiny compared to the expenditure of more than $1 billion per flight of the space shuttle.

The Bigger Question(s)

If the Dragon cargo ship is delivered properly, using the Falcon rockets (made by SpaceX itself), it will be a dramatic vindication of NASA’s faith in private players in the wake of the end of the space shuttle program. The Falcon rocket parts are already assembled at the Cape Canaveral launch site. The Dragon spacecraft is yet to arrive and is expected in August or September.

The Falcon rocket

The wide space left behind by the end of the space shuttle program leaves room for the super-reliable Soyuz to become the primary player in the space game. Roskosmos, the Russian space agency, realizes as much:

From today, the era of the Soyuz has started in manned space flight, the era of reliability

SpaceX is the not the only player in the game. Following it, but not very close behind, is Orbital Sciences Corp., which also has landed a NASA contract. It is planning its Cygnus’ ship for a February 2012 launch.

Reliability is a key question on everyone’s mind. If that is answered in the positive, there will be inevitable questions on the ethical decision to let private players enter into virgin territory, especially when manned space flight will be involved.

Beyond the Sun’s Reach: Voyager Reaches The Edge of Interstellar Space

Voyager is at the edge of the heliosphere’, going farther than any other craft before it or since. The space probe, of a modest 722 kg, launched in 1977 by NASA to probe nearby planets, had exceeded all expectations long ago, as it crossed the orbit of Neptune at its farthest point on 14th February 1990 (a romantic coincidence?). It is now at the edge of the imaginary sphere of Sun’s influence the edge at which particles from the Sun can resist those coming from interstellar medium.

Voyager 1

Voyager: A Brief History

Voyager 1 was launched on 5th September, 1977. Its sister, Voyager 2, was launched two weeks later on 20th September. Its primary mission was to photograph Jupiter and its moons along with the Saturnian system.

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Voyager carries on itself a golden audio-video record disc, in the event that it is discovered by some form of intelligent life. The disc has photos of the male and the female human forms, of various other lifeforms on Earth, audio records of greetings from US and Russian state-heads and those by children. It also contains recordings of various sounds of Earth that of a whale, a baby crying and of various pieces of music.

Cover for the Golden Disc aboard each of the two Voyagers

Tryst with Jupiter

Voyager 1 reacher Jupiter early January 1979 and made its closest approach on 5th March. The photos revealed tantalizing details about both Jupiter and its moons. Most of the, now legendary, tales about Jupiter and its moons come due to Voyager. It closely observed the storms on Jupiter, especially the Great Red Spot, and measured its magnetic field. The photos of Io revealed volcanic activity not known before, while those of Ganymede revealed a frozen world the largest ice cover in the Solar System.

Jupiter - one of the first photos from Voyager 1
The Great Red Spot on Jupiter
A Plume on Io, the volcanic moon of Jupiter
Time lapse photo of Jupiter by Voyager 1
Jupiter with its moons. A collage formed with Io on the upper left, Europa at the center, Ganymede on the lower center and Callisto on the lower right

Sojourn to Saturn

Saturn was supposed to be the last stop for Voyager. It picked up a close view of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, after Pioneer 11 had detected a thick cloud cover. Voyager picked up brilliant images of Saturn, its rings and of Titan’s thick atmosphere. This was the end of the Grand Tour’, but Voyager, which was over-engineered’, kept on going. The extended mission included sending it to Uranus, Neptune, Pluto and, maybe, beyond.

Saturn: Observed by Voyager through UV and green filters
Titan: Note the thick atmosphere that appears blue in reflected sunlight

Uranus and Neptune

Voyager revealed Uranus and Neptune to be frigid gaseous worlds with a blue atmosphere made predominantly of ammonia and methane. It explored the Uranian ring system, photographed the Great Dark Spot’ of Neptune and flew further out.

Uranus from Voyager 2
Neptune: Note the dark spot in the middle of the blue. That's the Great Dark Spot

The Pale Blue Dot: Our Home

On 14th February, 1990, Voyager officially left the Solar System. It turned its camera back onto the planets and photographed the entire planetary family from the distance. One of these photos was that of Earth, which was a blue dot suspended in a sunbeam the famous Pale Blue Dot.

The Family of Planets - from beyond the Solar System
The Pale Blue Dot. Great poets and warriors, saints and sinners, happiness and sadness have originated on that single pixel suspended in sunbeam.

This is the pale blue dot we claim home. The late Carl Sagan was lyrical in his famous lines about the Pale Blue Dot on the wildly popular TV series Cosmos‘ and his inspired book by the same name.

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was … every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.

Here’s a small clipping taken from featuring Sagan. Don’t miss it for the world the warm tingling in your spine is a feeling unrivaled. Lose yourself in it.

Onto the Great Beyond

Voyager transmits to the Deep Space Network, each transmission taking 16 hours to reach. It crossed the termination shock’ boundary, the region in which the solar wind’s magnetic influence drops to near zero in 2004. Scientists were waiting for it to cross the edge of the heliosphere the region where the solar wind sharply changes direction. (Heliosphereis thus the sphere’ which the solar winds fill up.)

Now that Voyager has gone there, scientists find the area to be utterly calm. They find the solar wisps mingling with the interstellar particles. What’s the big deal you ask? The sun is wading through a sea of particles produced by nearby supernovae and other energetic phenomenon. The heliosphere keeps out their influence. Precious little is known about this forbidden limit; maybe Voyager will shed some light.

Voyager will continue. Calculations say that it will have enough batteries to last it till 2025, and by then it will be far out of range of radio communication. It is expected to pass the constellation Camelopardalis in another 40,000 years (Remember Newton’s First Law of Motion?).

The Great Beyond Beckons…

(All images credited to JPL/NASA)