TEHRAN, Iran — Iran announced Wednesday it launched a menagerie of animals – including a mouse, two turtles and worms – into space on a research rocket, a feat President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said showed Iran could defeat the West in the battle of technology.
Ahmadinejad also unveiled the model of a light booster rocket that is being built and three new, Iranian-built satellites, touted as the latest achievements in the country's ambitious space program.
The Iranian space program has worried Western powers, which fear the same technology used to launch satellites and research capsules could also be used to build long-range intercontinental missiles and deliver warheads.
A U.S. defense expert said there was no scientific purpose to launching such animals into space and that the launch was likely more aimed at boosting Iran's prestige.
To test a life-support system of use to humans, "the obvious choice would be to send a monkey," said James Lewis, senior fellow at Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Worms in space serve no purpose."
"The launch was clearly part of Iran's effort to advance military technology and assert political dominance in space," said Lewis "It's also a show of confidence. Space rockets give you prestige and influence, and that is what Iran seeks."
The launch of the rocket Kavoshgar-3, which means Explorer-3 in Farsi, was announced by Defense Minister Gen. Ahmad Vahidi to mark the National Day of Space Technology. The announcement came a year after Iran sent its first domestically made telecommunications satellite – called Omid, or Hope – into orbit for 40 days.
Iran's state TV broadcast images Wednesday of officials putting a mouse, two turtles and about a dozen creatures that looked like worms inside a capsule into the Explorer-3, which appeared to be about 10 feet long. TV then aired footage of the rocket blasting off.
The rocket was fitted with a life-support system and cameras that filmed the condition and movements of the animals as well as images from the rocket's exterior, transmitting it to experts on the ground, as it arched up into space, the state news agency IRNA reported.
The rocket traveled "beyond the atmosphere" and parachuted back to Earth, said Ebrahim Mahmoudzadeh, a senior Defense Ministry official. He did not specify precisely how high it flew, but suggested its animal payload had survived.
"The main mission of Explorer-3 was to travel beyond atmosphere carrying living animals in certain living conditions so that it would go and get back safely," he said on state television. "The work was successful."
Iran's lofty space plans also include putting a man in orbit within 10 years.
Ahmadinejad praised the latest launch and said greater events would come in the future.
"The scientific arena is where we should defeat the (West's) domination," Ahmadinejad said in remarks broadcast live on state TV. He said the launch is a "very big event. This is the first presence of animals in space launched by Iran. It's the start of bigger achievements."
The model of the light booster rocket, named Simorgh, was displayed at a space show in Tehran, along with the three new Iranian-built satellites – Mesbah-2, Tolo and Navid-e-Elm-o-Sanat.
Officials said the Simorgh rocket can carry a satellite weighing 220 pounds (100 kilograms) up to 310 miles (500 kilometers) above the Earth. Ahmadinejad said the Simorgh would carry Mesbah-2 into space but did not say when.
The space ceremony Wednesday was part of 10-day celebrations leading up to 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, which falls on Feb 11.
As it seeks to expand its influence in the Middle East, Iran showcases its technological successes as signs it can advance despite the threat of U.S. and U.N. sanctions over its controversial nuclear program. In 2005, Iran launched its first commercial satellite on a Russian rocket in a joint project with Moscow. But since then, Russia and Italy have balked at launching the Mesbah – prompting Iran to develop its own satellites and rocket program.
Iran is also pushing forward on its military missile program, frequently testing missiles capable of reaching Israel, U.S. bases in the Gulf and even parts of southeast Europe.
The West is concerned Iran is trying to build an atomic weapon, but Tehran denies the charge and says it's nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes, such as electricity production.
John Pike, director of the U.S.-based security analyst group globalsecurity.org, said technology developed in the space program is easily transferable to the missile program. "It's just a question of what you put on the pointy end – whether it's turtles or a hydrogen bomb," he said.
He said Iran was unlikely to be able to get a man into space any time soon, since it would a require a rocket far larger than the largest and longest-range missiles currently in Iran's arsenal.
But a space program "is another way to get publicity. It's an attention-grabbing device," he said. "It's called rattling your rockets. These things don't do you any good unless people notice them."
Associated Press Writer Katarina Kratovac contributed to this report from Cairo.