As the Sun set over Florida, NASA ground staff hurried to complete preparations for space shuttle Discovery’s launch just before 8pm EST on Sunday. Fortunately, the countdown went as planned and Discovery is now on its way to install the remaining solar panels in the International Space Station’s solar array. The launch itself was strangely captivating, probably because this was the sixth launch date that has been set (continuously postponed due to valve problems and, most recently, a hydrogen leak). However, there was another reason that interested me, a bat had been discovered, hanging onto the the shuttle’s external fuel tank, refusing to budge…
The bat was discovered this morning after one of NASA’s cameras switched to a view looking at the exterior of the orange fuel tank, about a third of the way up the vertical rocket. The fruit bat probably thought he was climbing up an oversized tree trunk, finding a place to roost during the daylight hours (fruit bats are nocturnal), unfortunately he had found one of the worst places to fall asleep on.
“It’s not expected to be a debris problem,” said NASA spokesman Mike Curie in response to the bat discovery. It is not uncommon for the space shuttle to hit birds during launch, and a bat had roosted on another shuttle waiting on the launchpad. “On STS-72 there was a bat, but it flew away during launch,” Curie added, referring to the launch of Endeavour in 1996. Therefore, hopes were high that today’s bat would fly away before the shuttle’s boosters ignited.
Several minutes before the final countdown, the bat was still attached to the fuel tank, apparently oblivious to what was about to happen.
Naturally, Twitter was abuzz with news of concerned bat lovers, hoping that Brian (I thought it was only appropriate to name the little fella) had taken the hint and flown away. Unfortunately, he might have unwittingly become a bat mascot for Discovery’s launch and ascent through the atmosphere. Some speculation suggests that Brian may have become frozen to the fuel tank, but for most of the day the tank exterior remained at a reasonable14-20°C, so this seems unlikely.
In the run-up to launch, cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuel is pumped into the tank. This would cause the exterior to cool rapidly, causing condensation and possibly ice. Mission managers expected Brian to fly away when he got too cold, but there is no news to suggest this happened.
Regardless as to whether Brian remained attached to the external tank through freezing or heavy sleeping, there remains a significant chance that his fruit-eating days are over. If he didn’t give it enough time to escape, he would have been shaken free of the fuel tank (regardless of whether he was frozen there or not) and caught in the searing 1400°C exhaust from the rocket nozzles.
As it turns out, Brian has a Twitter account (@DiscoveryBat), so we’ll have to wait and see whether he’ll report on his whereabouts…