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Bat Attempts to Stow Away on Space Shuttle

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - A small bat appears to be trying to hitch a ride aboard the space shuttle Discovery from its perch on the spacecraft?s attached external tank as NASA counts down to a planned Sunday evening launch.

Mission managers said the tank-clinging fruit bat is unlikely to pose a risk for the shuttle, and will probably fly away when Discovery blasts off this evening at 7:43 p.m. EDT (2343 GMT) from Pad 39A here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

"It's not expected to be a debris problem," NASA spokesman Mike Curie told SPACE.com. The bat is between one quarter and one third of the way up on the north side of the shuttle's huge orange external fuel tank, which is the side that faces away from the orbiter. It could be seen in a NASA camera view caught by collectSPACE.com, a SPACE.com partner.

It was first noticed this morning while the fuel tank was being filled with its super-chilled liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellant. NASA does not think the bat has frozen in place, though, because the tank's surface temperature is between 58 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit at the bat's location.

This isn't the first time a bat has taken up position on a shuttle's fuel tank on launch day.

"On STS-72 there was a bat, but it flew away during launch," Curie said, referring to the 1996 flight of the shuttle Endeavour. That bat did not harm the shuttle at all.

Birds and bats can pose a hazard to space shuttles if they impact and damage an orbiter's sensitive heat shield tiling. This thermal coating protects the shuttle from burning up in Earth's atmosphere when it re-enters.

In 2005, a large turkey vulture ran into the back of the space shuttle Discovery's external tank. Luckily, this impact didn't harm the shuttle, which was on the opposite side of the tank. Ever since, NASA launch officials use radar to track flocks of birds during a launch. NASA also fires loud canons to scare away birds when the shuttle is heading in to touch down on the long landing strip at Kennedy Space Center.

Discovery is poised to deliver new solar arrays and a new station crewmember to the International Space Station. Commander Lee Archambault will lead the seven-member STS-119 crew on the planned 13-day mission.

Discovery is also ferrying Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata to the space station, where he will replace NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus as a member of the outpost's three-person crew. Coincidentally, Wakata - Japan's first long-duration astronaut - was also part of the STS-72 crew aboard Endeavour when the last bat tried to hitch a ride into space.

The legend of the Bat-ronaut

As Discovery continues its approach to the space station for a planned docking at 4:12 p.m. CDT, engineers on the ground have determined the status of the small bat that stubbornly clung to the shuttle's external tank (ET) prior to, and -- as it turns out -- through launch.

A shuttle engineering memo, obtained by collectSPACE, notes: "He did change the direction he was pointing from time to time throughout countdown but ultimately never flew away. IR imagery shows he was alive and not frozen like many would think. The surface of the ET foam is actually generally between 60-80 degrees F on a day like [Sunday]."

"Lift off imagery analysis confirmed that he held on until at least the vehicle cleared to tower before we lost sight of him."

"And thus is the legend of the STS-119 Bat-ronaut..."

Based on images and video, a wildlife expert who provides support to Kennedy Space 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. https://twitter.com/DiscoveryBat



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BatsRule!: Bat Attempts to Stow Away on Space Shuttle
Bat Attempts to Stow Away on Space Shuttle
Bat Attempts to Stow Away on Space Shuttle
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