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)
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)
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