BOOM!! BOOM!! Beep Beep Beep Woof Woof Woof

Identified Flying Object: Anthony Cook caught a gipse of the shuttle over Griffin Observatory, LA (©Anthony Cook)
Identified Flying Object: Anthony Cook caught a gipse of the shuttle over Griffin Observatory, LA (©Anthony Cook)

Yesterday, at 5.48pm PDT, I witnessed a shuttle event for the first time. Following the 13-day long STS-128 mission to the International Space Station, shuttle Discovery had to be redirected to land at Edwards Air Force Base, about an hour north of Los Angeles.

Excited, I kept track of the shuttle’s progress as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and made a fast decent toward the Californian coastline. I quickly realized that the shuttle’s flightpath would not only take it over LA, it would be flying straight over my house! (Give or take a few pixels on my laptop screen, that would probably translate to several miles, but hell, it was close enough.)

I knew there might be a good chance that I’d hear the shuttle’s sonic boom as it passed over LA County, but I wanted to see the approaching shuttle too.

Unfortunately, it was one of the few days that there was low cloud patching the sky, so the chances were slim. Either way, I had a good chance of hearing the sonic boom if I got outside and listened very hard. I was told on good authority (by ace Discovery Space correspondent Irene Klotz) I should be able to hear the shock wave about 4 minutes before touchdown.

There was 6 minutes to go, so I ran outside to listen out for the distant thud of Discovery slamming though the atmosphere 14× the speed of sound.

Distant thud? Are you sure about that, Ian?

Although I was prepared to hear a mediocre bang, I wasn’t prepared for what really happened–


Stupidly, I was balancing on a chair, shading my eyes in the hope of seeing a little dart-shaped shuttle through the clouds… with my laptop under my other arm so I could hear the NASA TV commentary a bit better. Not smart. I nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard that! I’m amazed I didn’t drop the laptop and fall off the chair, it really was that loud. Almost like a bomb going off.

Once I put the computer down on a more suitable surface, I shouted “Holy crap!” (on Twitter too). I was shaking a little. I heard the neighbours chatting about the noise; a car alarm was sounding and dogs were barking (hence the reference to the funny title, as said by @08HD_DynaSGC). I’d just heard the space shuttle, pass overhead, after spending 13 days orbiting the Earth, docked with the space station.

The enormity of the Shuttle Program struck me really hard, and I felt a little emotional. I hadn’t even seen a shuttle with my own eyes, all I’d heard was its sonic boom. I can only imagine how I’d react if I actually saw a shuttle launch, or a landing. I hope I do, soon, before the remaining six shuttle missions are out…

Image source:

Discovery Undocks From ISS, Descends Through Sunset

A sequence of images from the space station as Discovery departs (NASA TV, edited by Ian O'Neill)
A sequence of images from the space station as Discovery departs. Images slightly corrected for camera rotation (NASA TV, edited by Ian O'Neill)
The ISS now has its full set of solar arrays after the STS-119 mission (NASA)
The ISS now has its full set of solar arrays after the STS-119 mission (NASA)

After looping once around the space station, space shuttle Discovery slowly dropped away as it started its journey back to Earth on Wednesday, March 25th.

I was watching the live video feed coming from the station, captivated by the scene. Having successfully completed the STS-119 mission, the seven crew members said their farewells after the 10-day stay in low-Earth orbit to install the remaining solar arrays (left). This will enable the station to collect more energy to sustain an expanded crew from three to six later this year, and allow the station to carry out more science.

On NASA TV, I listened to the chatter between mission control, the station and the shuttle but I was overjoyed to capture some screen shots as the shuttle passed through the sunset and then dropping into the Earth’s shadow (top). The added bonus was the glint of sunlight before Discovery turned orange before slipping into the night. Stunning…

For more, check out the Universe Today’s coverage of the Discovery undocking »

The Brian Bat Foundation


“Remembering the voluntary and accidental endeavours of animals in human spaceflight”

Just in case you haven’t heard, one little free-tailed bat from Florida caused quite a stir this week. Brian the Bat, who hitched a ride with Space Shuttle Discovery, captured the hearts and minds of the Twitter and blogging community, eventually spilling into the international stage. Although it was widely reported that “a bat” had been involved in the STS-119 launch, it seemed that the world reacted even more strongly to the fact I had personalized him by naming the little fella.

First, a major Norwegian publication referred to “Brian the Bat” (in wonderful articles written by Geir Barstein), followed swiftly by the UK’s Sun (reported by the excellent Paul Sutherland) and the Daily Mail.

So what was leant from the sad loss of Brian? The world has an appreciation/concern for the endeavours of animals in spaceflight. Therefore, today I have launched the Brian Bat Foundation (, a section of set up to keep track and celebrate the endeavours of animals in space flight. I have covered articles about mosquitoes, monkeys, dogs, spiders, butterflies and even tardigrades involved in space experiments, but there should also be an awareness that other animals are impacted by our spaceflight activities too. I hope The Brian Bat Foundation will do this, reporting on the funny, interesting and often tragic world of animals in space…

Visit for more information »


Know of a worthy space animal that needs a mention? Leave your suggestions in the comment box below and I’ll do some research, hopefully ending up with an article about the space pioneer.

What Have I Done? Worlds Media Adopt “Brian the Bat”!

The one day I’m on the road and can’t find an Internet connection was bound to be the very same day that the mother of all headline news breaks! “Brian the Bat” has been adopted by the mainstream media. Naturally, many websites and news sources picked up the tragic end of the little broken-winged free-tail bat that attempted to stow away on Space Shuttle Discovery’s STS-119 launch on Sunday. However, after pondering the little guy’s fate on Sunday, I did what I normally do when talking about a cute little furry animal… I named him.

For some reason that even I cannot explain, I tend to call animals “Brian” if I can’t think of another name, so it seemed only natural to call the Discovery bat, Brian. Now it seems the mainstream media has been paying attention to the random Twitterings about Brian.

I first got news from @Barstein that one of Norway’s largest papers (thank you Geir, for writing the article!), Dagbladet, had picked up the news, attributing with the naming (awesome). I have yet to translate and read the article fully, but I will do in a short while (Starbucks ‘net connection permitting). Dagbladet then followed up with “Her dør flaggermusa Brian” (“Brian the bat dies here”).

I was already overwhelmed that a major Norwegian paper would celebrate Brian’s final hours, but then I find out that the Daily Mail Online (one of the biggest UK newspapers) also reported about Brian the Bat!

Wow, all because I call small furry animals “Brian”. The power of Twitter and blogging appears to be rather strong! Although I would have liked Astroengine’s international media début to be focused on some extreme astrophysics theory, I am honoured that I might have played a small roll in personalizing this unfortunate Florida free-tailed bat, possibly boosting his memory the world over. He paid the ultimate price for our push to the stars, Brian should be remembered for that…

UPDATE (4pm): The largest UK tabloid newspaper, The Sun has just published an article called “It’s a giant leap for batkind” mentioning that the bat’s name was Brian. I was a little disappointed not to have a link to the original article at first, but I’m actually very glad, Astroengine might blow a fuse if I got a link from one of those sites!

Bat News Update: It Gets Worse

Brian the Discovery Bat holds onto the external tank moments before launch (NASA/Damaris B. Sarria)
Brian the Discovery Bat holds onto the external tank moments before launch (NASA/Damaris B. Sarria)

NASA has now given details about the circumstances of Brian’s demise. It turns out that Brian was in fact a free-tailed bat, and not a fruit bat as previously reported.

Also, NASA confirmed today’s news that Brian could be seen holding onto the orange external fuel tank as Space Shuttle Discovery cleared the tower during launch.

NASA was hopeful that Brian would fly away before Discovery even got close to launching, but it turns out that there was a reason for the bat’s stubbornness (and no, he wasn’t sleeping):

Based on images and video, a wildlife expert who provides support to the center said the small creature was a free tail bat that likely had a broken left wing and some problem with its right shoulder or wrist. The animal likely perished quickly during Discovery’s climb into orbit.

Now, that is sad. Brian was seen to be moving from time to time, and despite the deterrents put in place by NASA to frighten wildlife away from pre-launch shuttles (i.e. warning sirens), he refused to budge. This was probably because he was injured.

Naturally, this sad event has caused some anger, but I doubt NASA can be to blame for this unfortunate series of events. Bats have been seen to land on waiting shuttles on launch day in the past, only for them to fly away when the shuttle underwent fuelling, so ground control assumed Brian would simply fly away. However, they had no idea until after the fact that Brian was injured.

During shuttle launches (or any launches for that matter), local wildlife is bound to be impacted from time-to-time, and any creatures in the locale to the rockets perish in silence, with no media coverage. At least Brian went out in style. He will be remembered for a long time…

Ground Control To Brian Bat

To round off this captivating story, Karl Clodfelter (@DrKaz on Twitter) has adapted David Bowie’s “Ground Control To Major Tom”, very fitting. Here’s the original tune, so sing the following, starting about one minute in

This is Ground Control to Brian Bat
You’ve really chosen bad
And the websites want to know just why you’re there
Now it’s time to leave the fuel tank if you dare

This is Brian Bat to Ground Control
I’m getting ready to soar
And I’m flying in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today

For here
Am I gripping insulation
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do…

[guitar solo] clap-clap

Source: NASA via @Barstein

Bad News: Brian the Discovery Bat Was a Heavy Sleeper

Warning: You are about to read news of an upsetting nature. Brian didn’t make it, he was more of a thrill seeker than we gave him credit for…

Brian the Discovery Bat holds onto the external tank moments before launch (NASA/Damaris B. Sarria)
Brian the Discovery Bat holds onto the external tank moments before launch (NASA/Damaris B. Sarria)

If you have been following the news about the bat that caused a stir during Sunday’s Space Shuttle Discovery launch, we finally have closure on what actually happened. It is a sad day, Brian the Bat clung on to the shuttle’s exterior tank until lift-off…
Continue reading “Bad News: Brian the Discovery Bat Was a Heavy Sleeper”

Stunning Discovery Post-Launch Video

The plume of exhaust from Space Shuttle Discovery's launch on Sunday (©Adam Bojanowski)
The plume of exhaust from Space Shuttle Discovery's launch on Sunday creating a bright white cloud (©Adam Bojanowski)

Watch the time-lapse movie after Discovery’s launch »

I compiled the pictures I took into a time lapse movie. The blue cloud appears to grow where the shuttle main engines passed through a particular layer of atmosphere. The cloud grew in coverage and changed from bright white to electric blue as it expanded.” — Adam Bojanowski

Note: The expanding vivid white cloud appears after tiny droplets of water condense and then freeze around particles in Discovery’s exhaust after passing through a saturated layer of atmosphere. The ice in this new cloud preferentially scattered the blue light from the setting Sun (this is called Rayleigh scattering, the same mechanism for giving the sky its blue hue).


In Memory of Brian, the Discovery Bat

The bat, clinging to Discovery’s external tank on Sunday’s shuttle launch (©NASA/Collect Space/Brian the Bat)

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…

Continue reading “In Memory of Brian, the Discovery Bat”