Iran on Thursday signalled a broadening of its space ambitions by announcing the launch of a new rocket and a test capsule designed to house a monkey, amid Western concerns over its scientific advances.
The Iranian Space Agency launched the Kavoshgar-4 rocket carrying the capsule without fanfare on March 15, the official IRNA news agency said, citing the president's office. Iran had announced it would conduct the launch before the end of Iranian year on March 21.
The space capsule, unveiled by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in early February, is designed to carry a live monkey but there were no living creatures on board, IRNA added.
The launch of a large animal in space has been touted by Iranian officials as the first step towards sending a man into space, which Tehran says is scheduled for 2020.
The Islamic republic, which has outlined an ambitious space programme in the face of Western concerns, put a satellite into orbit in 2009 with the Safir-2 rocket and sent live small animals -- a rat, turtles and worms -- into space with its Kavoshgar-3 rocket in 2010.
Western powers fear that Iran's space agenda might be linked to developing a ballistic missile capability that could deliver nuclear warheads. Tehran has denied that its contentious atomic and scientific programmes mask military ambitions.
IRNA said the space agency managed to "test the system performance... the launch platform, engine, electronic and telemetry systems and the system of separation" between the rocket and its load.
Ahmadinejad announced during celebrations marking the 32nd anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution in February that the capsule would be tested before carrying a monkey into space.
The Kavoshgar-4, also unveiled in February, has been touted as capable of carrying a payload to an altitude of 120 kilometres (75 miles).
IRNA confirmed Thursday that tests of data and imagery transmission were conducted at this altitude.
The launch of a large animal in space has been touted by Iranian officials as "the first step towards sending a man into space" which Tehran says is scheduled for 2020.
Along with plans to put into orbit several experimental, observation or communication satellites by March 2012, Iran has also announced that it seeks to put satellites in the 35,000-kilometre (about 22,000 miles) orbit of geostationary satellites within "five or six" years.
Iran has also unveiled Safir 1-B launcher, capable of placing a 50 kilogram (110 pound) satellite into an elliptical orbit of 300 to 450 kilometres (185 to 280 miles).
In February 2010, Tehran also unveiled another home-built rocket designed to carry satellites, dubbed Simorgh (Phoenix) equipped to carry a 100-kilogram (220-pound) satellite 500 kilometres (310 miles) into orbit.
Ahmadinejad has made scientific development one of the central themes of his presidency, asserting that Iran has reached a peak of progress despite international sanctions and no longer needs help from foreign states.
The previous launches of rockets and satellites by Iran provoked strong reactions from the West, with Washington speaking of "provocation" and a potential violation of United Nations sanctions limiting Tehran from missile activity.