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The Discovery Bat’s Fate is Confirmed

The injured Free-tailed bat clings onto Discovery's external fuel tank on Sunday (NASA)

The injured Free-tailed bat clings onto Discovery's external fuel tank on Sunday (NASA)

On Sunday, Space Shuttle Discovery lit up the Florida evening skies, cutting through a magnificent sunset. The STS-119 mission is set to assemble the final stages of the International Space Station’s solar array, making the outpost the second brightest object in the night sky (after the Moon). Today, Discovery successfully docked with the space station and all is set for the upcoming spacewalks.

However, space launch successes to one side, there has been an undercurrent of concern captivating the world. On Sunday, the shuttle had a stowaway attached to the external fuel tank, and although NASA was sure the little animal wouldn’t be a debris risk, the bat remained attached to the shuttle, apparently stuck in place. New details have now emerged about why the bat didn’t fly away before Discovery launched…

Brian the Bat was clearly not frozen in this IR image shortly before launch (NASA)

Brian the Bat was clearly not frozen in this IR image shortly before launch (NASA)

On Sunday, there was some chat about the a bat roosting on the orange external fuel tank of the space shuttle. This isn’t such a strange occurrence, this is Florida after all, there is plenty of wildlife around Cape Canaveral, animals are bound to feature in shuttle launches every now and again. A bat has even roosted on the Shuttle before (STS-72 in 1996), only to fly away shortly before launch. Therefore, the bat discovered on Sunday morning was met with some mild curiosity and NASA was certain it would fly away before countdown.

However, during coverage of the shuttle launch, it became clear the bat was still roosting and some theories pointed at the possibility that the creature had become frozen to the tank as the cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen fuel was pumped into the external tank. However, the area where Brian was located (yes, I felt compelled to name him when chatting on Twitter about the situation), was not expected to drop below freezing. On watching Discovery blast off, the assumption was that Brian (then thought to be a fruit bat, he was in fact a Free-tailed bat) had long gone. How wrong we were.

This morning, images of Discovery’s launch surfaced and it would appear the bat remained attached to the fuel tank even when the shuttle passed the height of the launch tower. The bat was in it for the duration, he seemed determined to be the first bat in space!

The shuttle climbs, bat still holding on (NASA)

The shuttle climbs, bat still holding on (NASA)

So what happened? If the bat wasn’t frozen to the shuttle, why would he remain stuck on the external fuel tank? Surely he should have flown away when the shuttle powered up and vibrated before lift off? According to a NASA press release, the bat may have had little choice but to cling onto the shuttle. When the images were examined by a wildlife specialist, the conclusion was the bat may have had a broken wing, forcing him to hold on tight. Unfortunately, holding onto the fuel tank spelled certain doom; it is doubtful he would have been able to remain attached as the violent shaking and g-forces took hold. Although he made it as high as the launch tower, it is likely the bat dropped off and died in the searing 1400°C exhaust of the throttling boosters.

A sad reminder that small animals can be hurt and killed on the ground as we push into space. However, NASA goes through great effort to ensure there is minimal impact on birds and other animals during launches, and NASA can’t be blamed for the death of this one bat. At the end of the day, previous experience suggested the bat would simply fly away, unfortunately in this case, a broken wing was the bat’s downfall.

Sources: Space.com, NASA, Astroengine.com


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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • anomymouse March 18, 2009, 7:51 PM

    The tiles should be bat traps,NASA can make money by selling ‘freeze dried bats’ for 100 euros each. Limit of 10000 bats per trip

  • Mr Bill March 19, 2009, 1:57 AM


    God and science do mix. Why do you think God gave us the intelligence to build machines to go into space? There are other intelligences out there and God wants us to use our God given brains to go out and find them.

  • U.S. Citizen March 19, 2009, 7:35 AM

    This is going to be really funny if the shuttle stage comes back with a bat cryo-frozen to the tank side, to thaw out and fly away. And I don’t know about his name and all, but I think when It comes to getting your butt screwed, I think the bat is taking the name “free tailed” a little to far now. hahaha

  • U.S. Citizen March 19, 2009, 8:18 AM

    Batmobile, Bat-bike, Bat plane, Bat-boat, now we have the the Bat-shuttle. Perhaps Brian the bat was trying to tell us something. Moving on to the latest news, earlier last night, a mexican bat was seen trying to hi-jack the hub caps off the space shuttle, However the Mexican bats plans had been foiled due to the shuttle owner leaving in a hurry while listoning to the melody “Low, Low, Rider”. It was said by many that the mexican bat was angery for the non payment of it federal gold marijuana and was jacking the shuttle as collateral untill payments with food stamps was paid in full. hahaha

  • U.S. Citizen March 19, 2009, 8:31 AM

    I guess Rock don’t read the bible much. It clearly states that “we are not to worry about our breathern on the distant lights in the night sky”. I wonder why it said that? I don’t know where bullwinkles’ friend got His info, but I don’t think it came from the bible. Science and religion does work together. Just don’t think of God like the genie in aladdin, but more like mother nature of whom takes it’s own sweet time to do something like evolve man or a flower from the atoms of the dust into complex carbon based life with the energy housed in the fabric of matter’ vibration and quantum threads..

  • Eric Near Buffalo March 19, 2009, 9:12 AM

    I really don’t feel like skimming thru all of the comments to make sure, but I’m almost willing to bet that someone just had to bring up religion with this topic. Here’s a statement to end all shit flinging and bickering: “God” created the Universe, the Milky Way Galaxy, the Solar System, all forms of life that have ever walked the Earth, ourselves and our animal counterparts and finally our ability to think and theorize science.

    I grew up a God fearing person, but now I don’t fear the idea of God’s wrath for non-believers; or what conservative wacko religious types would deem “non-believers”.

    Nobody’s perfect and I’d bet you there’s twice as many conservative religious types with skeletons in their closets than supposed non-believers.

    People in science have their own set of beliefs whether it be a natural creation or creation by a supreme being; possibly a mix of the two. There’s no reason why it should turn into “God will smite you if you don’t fear him” or “You’re insane if you think this all came from spontaneous occurances.”

  • U.S. Citizen March 19, 2009, 9:43 AM

    @ Eric, ya forgot one though, about how the christians will save the non believers, even if they have to kill them to save their sinfull souls. Remember?

  • Stone Cold Steve Austin March 19, 2009, 10:06 AM


  • Minty March 19, 2009, 10:58 AM

    I wish I could’ve been the first bat into space. Someone else always has the best ideas before me. First Google, now this.

  • Eric Near Buffalo March 19, 2009, 11:10 AM

    @ US Citizen…

    Crap! Forgot about that one!!

    Don’t forget the televangelists either. “Come to my show for a ‘nominal fee’ to be enlightened with the power of God and Jesus Christ.” Right. The only things being enlightened by that greedy prick’s show are the wallets and purses of the ‘sheeple’ getting roped into their garbage.

  • dco March 19, 2009, 1:01 PM

    How did the bat fly there in the first place if its wing was broken?

  • U.S. Citizen March 19, 2009, 9:39 PM

    @ Eric

    Yea, And also they want you to send your money to the Lord, But they give ya THEIR address, hahaha

  • Eric Near Buffalo March 20, 2009, 6:39 AM

    @ US Citizen

    Ha! Yes!

    Then they take that money and funnel it into the pocket of a pimp on the crappy side of town or into the bank account of a child porn site.

  • S.E.Cycloid March 20, 2009, 9:48 AM

    I would just like to complain about all the mosquitoes and insects that are hit and burned up as the shuttle launches. Thanks for listening.

  • Eric Near Buffalo March 20, 2009, 12:49 PM

    @ S.E. Cycloid

    Everyone’s missing the point here. All that ammonia perclorate burned before it has a chance at life!