Late last night – UK time – the space shuttle Discovery blasted off spectacularly from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. The shuttle is now safely in orbit, preparing to meet up with the International Space Station, where its crew will oversee the delivery and installation of the final set of huge solar array “wings” which will provide power for the orbiting outpost.
Covered live online by NASA TV, the launch was absolutely beautiful. Discovery looked just serene as she stood on the pad, first gleaming white in the sunshine and then glowing pink as the Sun set and the space centre was plunged into twilight. When the main engines finally ignited it was like a miniature Sun had burst into life beneath the launch pad, and then Discovery rose on those characteristic twin columns of spitting white fire and climbed slowly up into the darkening Florida sky. The pictures on NASA TV were crystal clear, and we all enjoyed fantastic views from a camera mounted on the shuttle’s huge external fuel tank, showing the orbiter breaking free from and then drifting up and away from the ET…
One remarkable thing about the launch was the concern expressed by so many people over the fate of a fruit bat. What? A bat? Yep. Before the launch pad techs had spotted a fruit bat clinging on to the fuel tank, and many people following the launch on Twitter and other websites expressed fears for the bat’s safety when the shuttle actually launched. Some were confident the vibrations “would shake it off”. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that that happened, don’t you? If Mr Bat was sensible he got off that tank as soon as he felt the first shudders of the engines gimballing far below… if he didn’t, well, he’s now just a light dusting of particles on the launch pad somewhere, ‘cos in a contest between a little bitty fruit bat and the fiery exhaust plumes of an ascending shuttle and its twin solid rocket boosters there’s really only going to be one winner, I think..!
Bat update: This from the The Write Stuff blog:
KSC launch director Mike Leinbach suggested that the bat did not survive its brush with Discovery. In response to a reporter’s question, he said: “We are characterizing [the bat] as unexpected debris and he’s probably still debris somewhere.” A NASA press conference is ongoing. Discovery reached orbit safely after a 7:43 p.m. launch. As a reminder, a bat was spotted clinging to the side of the shuttle’s external tank during the countdown. Before flight, NASA speculated that the animal would be shaken free by the launch rumble and fly safely away – as happened once during a 1996 launch. It would appear this bat was not so lucky.
So, now Discovery will go dock with the ISS. The good news for UK skywatchers is that we’ll be able to see the two craft docked together during this mission, making a really lovely sight in the night sky. After this mission the ISS will apparrently be the third brightest object in the night sky – after the Sun and Moon – outshining even Venus, which is something to look forward to. In the meantime it will be fun to look up and see a bright “star” drifting across the sky and know that it’s actually a pair of manned spacecraft, joined together. Almost certainly it will be mistaken for a UFO by many people, and I’m just waiting for someone to insist they saw “a flying saucer” when really what they saw was Mankind’s first permanently-manned outpost in space, something much more exciting.
If you want to know when to look out for the ISS, here’s a handy timetable for you. It’s easy to use: just start looking towards the west a few minutes before the first time given on the left, and soon you’ll see a bright “star” rising up from beyond the horizon – this is the ISS! Some “passes” are more impressive than others – you want to make a special effort to be looking for it when the figure for “Mag” (that’s short for ‘magnitude’, astronomy-speak for brightness) has a minus sign in front of it. They’re passes when the ISS is visible high up in the sky and looks wonderfully bright.
That’s a bit hard to read, I know, so if you click on the table you’ll see a much bigger version. Good luck!
Filed under: Uncategorized