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Boulders a’bouncing on Mars…

I love HiRISE. I love it more than a politician lovesĀ their expense claim forms, even more than that annoyingly smug one with the frizzy hair on Eggheads loves himself. It’s just a fantastic instrument on a fantastic spaceprobe, operated by fantastic people who clearly love Mars. Every now and again one of its images makes the news – recently its portraits of Deimos rightly made headlines – but there are so many hidden gems in its dataset just waiting for people to stumble upon them.

This morning, while waiting for an email to come in from one of my publishers, I dipped into the dangerously-addictive Mars Global Data website, and just had a wander around, clicking on a few red squares (each one representing a HiRISE image) to see what appeared. Click – nothing… click, naah, nothing special there either… click –

Hang on.



That’s a close-up of Aram Chaos, one of my favourite places on Mars… what’s that slumpy feature in the centre? It looked like a section of the valley wall had come loose and slid down to the lower ground below… time to zoom in for a closer look…


(raised Spok eyebrow) Fascinating… lots of rocks and boulders in the avalanche of material that’s fallen from the slopes… but looking even more closely, I found this…


The track of a huge boulder that had fallen from the valley wall and tumbled down, bouncing and rolling and boinging along for a long, long way… incredible to think that if I’d been standing there whenever that happened I’d have been able to see that chunk of rock rebounding off the surface again and again and again… But that wasn’t the only track, they are everywhere, and this one (colourised by me) really grabbed my attention…


Click on that image (or any of the images) to bring up a full sized version.

You know what I love about these images? They show movement, they show that things are moving on Mars right now. It’s not the dead, lifeless, corpse of a world I grew up with; it’s a world – we now know – where dust devils whirl and twirl across the plains… where clouds drift through the pale pink sky… and where huge stones fall from high cliff face, fall to the ground below, then bounce and roll and crash over it… unseen by anyone.

For now.

A new look space station…

Wow… what a difference a few years makes..!

The ISS started off looking like this…


… and looked like this after a few more missions…


Not too long ago it looked like this…


And now, finally, after Discovery’s mission, it looks like this…


How beautiful is that?! Look what we built! Isn’t that stunning? I know ISs has its problems and its critics, and that it hasn’t fulfilled its original mission or promise, but looking at that picture – as I always do when looking up at the real thing as it sails through the sky above my town – I feel very, very proud.

And just to show how beautiful the ISS is, take a look at what I think might just be one of the most stunning images taken in the space program so far… click on the image to bring up a full size version…


Look what we built…

Exoplanets – what’s all the fuss about?


… or should that be, “There’s no OTHER place like home… yet…”?

Exo-planets – or “extra-solar planets” to give them their full title – are currently the coolest things in astronomy. Following the launch of NASA’s exo-planet hunting Kepler telescope, many people are now getting very excited about the prospect of finding Earth-sized worlds Out There in the Black.

But many people aren’t.

I gave an Outreach talk the other week (see a previous post) and was asked about “that new spaceprobe that’s looking for another Earth”. I assumed they meant Kepler, so I briefly described its mission. The questioner looked strangely unimpressed, so I asked why. “Well,” they replied, “it doesn’t really matter, does it? Even if they find one it won’t affect us. Why are you so worked up about this?”

Why? WHY?!?

Hmmm. It’s a good question actually. Why DOES it matter that we now know some of those twinkling points of light in the night sky are circled by strange, exotic worlds? Why are astronomers spending hours and hours gazing at these distant suns, hoping to glimpse signs of planets spinning around them? And with countless problems to solve down here on Earth, why should money be spent on scanning the heavens for far-flung alien solar systems with multi-million $ telescopes, satellites and computers?

Simple. Because we have to leave Earth and find another home.

Not today, not this year, not anytime soon. Probably not for a thousand generations. But at some point, for some reason – global warming, catastrophic pollution, war – Mankind or at least some members of Mankind will have to leave Earth and set up another home Somewhere Out There. And although we don’t need to start planning that exodus or expedition just yet, as is true for any imminent long road trip it’s a good idea to actually have a destination chosen – a guaranteed distant gravel driveway to scrunch to a comforting halt on.

And the search for exoplanets is nothing less than the search for worlds where Mankind might one day make its home.

“Oh come on!” I can hear some of you laughing right now, possibly having terrifying flashbacks to the godawful TV series ‘Earth 2’, “that’s science fiction!” And that’s true – for now. Not just because we’re nowhere near the tech needed to build starships and launch them into deep space, and not just because the aforementioned threats of global warming, pollution and war could all be tackled if we put our minds to it, but because we haven’t actually FOUND any Earth 2’s yet. We have found no scrunchy gravel driveways to draw up on after a long journey.

As I write this on a deliciously crisp Spring Sunday morning in the Lakes, we know of 344 exoplanets, orbiting 291 stars. That’s an INCREDIBLE thing, an ASTOUNDING thing, an unbelievable paradigm shift from where we were just a decade ago. For most of my life I’ve looked up at, and lived beneath, a Cumbrian sky (hmmm, good name for a blog, that! šŸ™‚ ) strewn with diamond-dust stars, painted with flower petal nebulae and embroidered with filigree star clusters and galaxies. But the only planets in it were the ones of my own solar system. Now I can go out on a knife-sharp clear and frosty night, lift my tired eyes from the ground, and within moments find a star that has its own solar system. Even just thinking about that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end..!

But not one – not one! – of the 344 planets we’ve found Out There is even remotely like Earth. In fact, mots areĀ about as much like Earth as a blue whale is “like” a goldfish. Almost all the planets found so far are either freaks or fools. Many are huge bloated balls of gas, many times bigger than Jupiter, that whirl around their parent star so closely they’re almost surfing across its fiery surface. Others are smaller and more solid, but still bizarrely alien, disobedient, rebel worlds that are nothing like Earth either.

Why? Well, even the most sophisticated, cutting-edge exo-planet hunting technology and techniques we have are not advanced enough to detect Earth-sized worlds. We’re getting there, we can now find worlds several times bigger than Earth, but a true Terra-sized planet is still frustratingly beyond our grasp, and we’re limited – as amazing as it is – to finding “Super Earth” planets that aren’t much like our own.

Ah, but one day…

One day we will have the technology and the techniques to allow us to find Other Earths circling around Other Suns. One post-Kepler day we won’t just be able to detect them by measuring the way they make their parent stars wobble, or by measuring the tiny dip in their parent star’s brightness as the planet passes between it and us, but we’ll be able to image the planets themselves, take their pictures, and actually see them glinting like tiny sequins or shimmering fish scales in the almost blinding glare of their suns.

And when we’ve finally tracked down worlds the size of Earth we’ll develop even more advanced tech and techniques to let us look at them more closely. We’ll learn if they have atmospheres, oceans and forests of their own. We’ll eventually be able to see if they really are “like Earth”.

And on one magical, wonderful, amazing future day, a team of uncomfortable-looking scientists will sit on a stage , behind a long table, facing banks of cameras and a seething crowd of journalists, and grin as the US President, standing at a podium in front of them, announcesĀ to the world that they have finally, after centuries of searching by generations of astronomers, found Another Earth. He’ll ask for the huge screen behind them to show “Slide 1” –Ā a star map with one star circled in red, or gold, or perhaps, more fittingly, ocean blue, and then zoom in that star to show a tiny speck of light basking in its glow. Zooming in on it again they’ll make that point of light grow bigger still until it is a tiny, hazy, blurred disc, with columns and rows of figures next to it describing the constituents of its atmosphere, its surface temperature, its gravity… some reporters will see the words “nitrogen” and “oxygen” on the screen, and realise that they are the telltale signs of a habitable – and maybe even inhabited – world, and a buzz will start to grow…

More figures will flash up then, showing that the scientists’ instruments had detected methane, chlorine, chlorophyl, and more of the scientists will realise what it is they’re seeing: evidence of life…!

Then the real show-stopper – the blurred dot on the screen behind the scientists will grow larger and larger, its image will grow sharper and crisper, as if a lacey veil has been pulled away from in front of it, and there will be gasps as the journalists and the watching world see familiar sights – areas of achingly-beautiful blue inbetween areas of brown and gold… gleams of mother-of-pearl blue white will become visible at the top and bottom of the disc, while feathers and streamers of cream and white will appear over the planet’s land masses, dotted here and there with out of focus catherine wheel swirls of huge storm systems…

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the President will say, “this team of scientists, sitting behind me,Ā has found another Earth.”


Imagine that… just imagine that… take a moment to think about what it will feel like to witness that moment in history. It will be unique in the most absolute sense of the world. There will only ever be one “first other Earth” found, only one announcement of its discovery – and we could be just a handful of years away from it.

And in the years, decades and centuris that follow, that world – and others found like it – will be studied intently until we are confident that they could support life. And then Mankind will know it has anoher place to go Out There.

And when the first great starship is built, as one day it will be, its destination will be one of the worlds detected by telescopes like Kepler – perhaps even one of the worlds found by Kepler itself.


That is why we’re looking for exo-planets. We have no choice. We can’t stay here, on this world, forever.


One day we’ll colonise the Moon, and Mars, and the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn, but our tennancy on those worlds will be limited by the lifetime of the Sun, and when the Sun dies so too will our solar system. So although the solar system is going to be our home for a long, long time,Ā we need other homes Out There if we’re to ensure the survival of our species, its art, music and civilisation.

And it’s incredible to be alive in the years when we’veĀ started to look for those homes.

But there’s an even more profound reason for embarking upon this quest. We have this insatiable hunger to know if we’re Alone in the universe. If we find just one – just one – Earth-like world in a habitable zone around another star, then there’s a very good chance there’ll be some form of life on its surface. If we actually detect life – even plant life – on a planet orbiting another star then that is proof that the development of life is a process, not just a fluke restricted to Earth, and then there’s a very real possibility that we are part of a living universe, and share it with other races, other civilisations and other cultures. Searching for Earth-like worlds is searching for relations, or at least neighbours, in the Black.

That is why it matters.

What’s in a name..?


Yesterday NASA announced the shortlist of names for the Mars Science Laboratory, and invited people to vote for their favourite via a website. Since then I’ve been pondering my vote. A lot. And I mean A Lot. Because I’m afraid to say – and here I mean absolutely no offense is meant towards any of the kids who suggested the names – that none of the names really jumps out at me as appropriate or exciting enough to represent what will be a fascinating and hopefully paradigm-shifting mission.

But I have a dilemma here. I’m very conscious of the fact that I wanted to throw a shoe through my computer monitor when I read that the MERs had been christened “Spirit” and “Opportunity” – they just seemed like the worst names in the world! – but somehow they’ve since “grown into” their names, and even taken on personalities and traits to go with those names, and I now can’t imagine them being called anything else…

Many people I know online are very disappointed in the names, and feel like I do – they’re notĀ quite right somehow.Ā Some have even suggested it was a mistake to ask children to suggest the names in the first place. I have to disagree with that. I personally think it’s great that kids are involved in this naming process, it really helps them feel involved and gives them an added interest in the mission. I can easily imagine the kids who took part in this competition sitting at their kitchen tables, staring at a piece of blank paper, tapping a pencil on their teeth and Thinking Very Hard about what name to suggest, what name would be fitting and “spacey”. That has to be a good thing, right? It’s just a shame that this particular list of names is, on the face of it, rather uninspiring.

But I guess that from a small kid’s point of view those names ARE quite spacey… try putting an exclamation mark after some of them and you ARE a kid again: Journey! Adventure! Vision! That works better, eh?

I think the problem is that many adult “space enthusiasts” are thinking how naff it will be when we see certain of those names on Exploratorium, or MMB, orĀ on forums like UMSF. We have a rather differentĀ perspective to a 9 year old.

So, where am I? Well, after a day of thinking about it, “Amelia” is definitely growing on me, as it was – as I suspected – suggested as a tribute to the famous aviator Amelia Earhart.


I like that.Ā It would provide a great link with an inspirational figure from history, there would be a great background story to hang educational and Outreach programs on to, and if the rover was named after a woman there’d be no geekyĀ arguments about the “sex” of the rover… šŸ˜‰

But others have suggested that it would be wrong to name MSL after someone who went missing, because it would link the rover to a failure, instead of a success, and that would just be asking forĀ the media to use that angle and also to tempt fate for the rover itself.

Naaah. Are we so superstitious that we think naming a spacecraft after an aviator and adventurer who was lost – doing what they loved – will condemn that spacecraft to the same fate? I don’t recall anyone suggesting the Galileo probe should be called something else because Galileo was put on trial for advancing knowledge. (Actually, in hindsight, as someone pointed out on UMSF, maybe Galileo WAS a bad choice for a name, as its main comms antenna didn’t unfurl properly…) And to the best of my knowledge no-one said “No! You can’t call it that! That ship sank! You’ll doom Oppy!” when the name ‘Endurance’ was given to one of the rover Opportunity’s target craters, in honour of the ship that took Shackleton and his team towards the south pole – and was crushed by the Antarctic ice…

No, I think Amelia is definitely growing on me. I hate to use the phrase, but it strikes me as the best of a bad bunch. It could be nicely abbreviated too – “Amy” sounds okay to me, and sounds not unlike “Wall-E”, the Disney animated character that features so heavily on the MSL websites.

Besides, isn’t it a bit romantic? Or is there no place in the exploration of space for romance anymore..?


Name the next Mars rover!


So, you’ve sent YOUR name to Mars (haven’t you? What’s keeping you?! I gave you the link and everything!), what next? Well, how about helping NASA actually name the rover your name is going to be riding?

At the moment, the Mars Science Laboratory is simply known as “MSL”, which is accurate but not exactly catchy. What MSL needs, like every rover and spacecraft before it, is a name, and NASA is inviting people to help them choose that name by voting for their favourite out of nine finalists. All you have to do is go to a NASA website and put the nine names in the order you rank them, it’s as simple as that. šŸ™‚

I think this is a great idea!Ā MSL is a beast of a machine, a Transformer of a spacecraft, a real brute of a rover. It needs a name that’s suitable. Something… “exciting, inspirational, dramatic”! Something that will capture the essence of the mission…

These are the names NASA is asking people to vote on.



I have to be honest here: none of those names are really jumping out at me as being “exciting, inspirational, or dramatic”, and I’m not sure any of them “capture the essence of the mission”. “Sunrise” is just too hippy-huggy for me, and sounds like an orange juice or health drink; “Perception” sounds like something a Vulcan would call a Mars rover; “Curiosity” is a bit too timid-sounding, and is just screaming out to be tagged onto the word “killed” in newspaper headlines as soon as anything goes wrong…

At the moment, I’m leaning towards, and torn between, “Amelia” and “Pursuit”. I like Amelia not because I have a friend called Amelia, and it would be fun to read about her trekking across Mars every day, but because a) I’m wondering if the name was submitted as a tribute to the famous aviator Amelia Earhart, and b) in a very spooky coincidence I bought, from a charity shop the other day, a video of the STAR TREK: VOYAGER episode “The 37’s” which features… Amelia Earhart! No, I’m not joking; I really did buy a STAR TREK: VOYAGER video. I have a soft spot for that series, which I know puts me in a tiny minority of ST fans but…

Anyway, back to the naming contest. As I said, I’m torn between “Amelia” and “Pursuit”. “Pursuit” just sounds, well, sexier somehow, more fitting for a rugged, exciting space mission.

But… sigh… I don’t know, I really don’t, I’m struggling to look at the shortlist and go “I want THAT one!”. What is intriguing though is that the website clearly states that NASA will make the final decision, so maybe they’ll go with something else in the end, I don’t know.

Anyway, why not join in the fun and cast your vote here, especially if there’s a name on that shortlist you really like. It’s great that NASA lets the public be involved in things like this, so go on, give it a go. šŸ™‚

Want to go to Mars..?

… me too! But booooo! we can’t. At least, not yet. But we can do the next best thing and send our NAMES to Mars…! How?

Well, for the past few years NASA has encouraged people to participate in their unmanned missions by setting up websites that allows them to put their names on the spaceprobes being launched out into space. All the names submitted are then etched onto a special disc which is stuck on to the spaceprobe and voila, everyone who sent in their name is, in a way, off into space! It’s just a bit of fun, not scientific in any way at all, but it’s still a cool thing to do, and clearly encourages public participation and interest in the missions, so it’s a Win-Win as far as I’m concerned. My name is now scattered across the whole solar system… šŸ˜‰

From today, NASA is accepting names to go to Mars onboard the Mars Science Laboratory. It’s embarrassingly easy to send your name to Mars. Just go to this website…


… and you’ll see this screen…


And after adding those few details voila, you’re off to Mars! I got onto the submission site very soon after it opened for business, so I’m pretty sure that Cumbrian Sky is the first blog to have its name submitted. Here’s our shiny certificate!


So, why not head on over to the website and add your name to the list! Tell your friends about it too, and encourage them to participate in this exciting mission. MSL doesn’t launch for another 2 years yet, so by the time it blasts off there will probably be millions of names on it. Get in there now and you can feel just a little bit chuffed that you were among the first! šŸ™‚

“Spreading the word”…

I just had a FANTASTIC few of days telling and teaching people about astronomy, space exploration and the universe. This is now called “Outreach”, or “Outreach and Education”, but essentially it’s “Spreading The Word” about the wonders of the night sky, and the amazing things we’ve done, are doing and will do in space.

On Thursday morning I went through to the small Cumbrian village of Haversham, to talk to the Forum Group at the village’s popular and thriving Athenaeum Centre. The Forum Group are, I’m sure they won’t mind me saying, a group of retired people who are still very keen to learn, and do, new things, and last year – they plan early! – they generously/foolishly invited me to be the guest speaker at their March 2009 meeting. Of course I accepted – you know me, I’ll happily talk about space to a room with one person in it! – and on Thursday morning I gave my “Skywatching for Beginners” Powerpoint presentation to the 50 or so people who had, thankfully,Ā decided not to spend their morning basking in the glorious Cumbrian Spring sunshine but listen to me blathering on about stars and planets and spacemen instead!

It was a very enjoyable morning, and the group made me feel very welcome, as groups like that (almost!) always do. And at the end of the talk there was half an hour of good questions from the floor, which a guest speaker relishes. All the “Space Station Visibility Times” information sheets I’d brought along vanished from their table very quickly, and lots of the Forum members came to see and hold the meteorites I’d taken along to show them. All were impressed by how heavy the piece of ‘Meteor Crater’ Canyon Diablo meteorite was – especially the members who had actually been to the crater itself – and there was a lot of excitement at being able to see and hold my small specimen of Mars rock, too. Luckily the sky stayed clear that evening, so I’m hoping that at least some of the people who attended my talk went out into their gardens after night, looked up at the starry sky, and understood and appreciated it a little better than they had that morning.

Then on Friday it was time to head north to the equally-small village of Irthington, just outside Carlisle, to give a talk to some of the pupils at Irthington Village School. I’d been contacted by the school after they decided to hold a “Sleepover” event – at which, as the name rather suggests, theĀ pupils would be sleeping in the school overnight – and asked if I could come and give themĀ a talk about astronomy and space, seeing as they’d been learning about that subject during the previous term. I said I’d be happy to, so on FridayStella and I arrived at the school to join in the fun!

After setting up my trusty 4.5″ reflector, it was time to give the kids, and there were around 25 of them I think, a Powerpoint (how did I manage before Powerpoint?!?!?!?!) “Tour of The Universe”, which they absolutely loved. It’s more than an hour long that talk – try as I might I simply cannot trim down a tour of the whole universe to less than an hour! I think an hour’s pretty good anyway! – and all the “Sleepyheads” were brilliantly behaved, considering how hot the classroom got with all of them crammed into it so closely! I had a simply **brilliant** assistant/volunteer/stooge/victim in Saffy, a young girl who had raced to the front as soon as she could, eager to grab a good view, and she let meĀ use her to illustrate lots of ideas and concepts during theĀ Tour; not only did she let me pick her up and bounce her across the classroom floor to illustrate the Moon’s low surtface gravity, but she let me kill her in many glorious ways, i.e.Ā she suffocated and burned to death on Venus; froze to death on Pluto; fell to her death from the Verona Rupes cliffs on Miranda, and drowned in the poisonous lakes of Titan, and always with a huge smile on her face. What a trooper! Seriously, speakers like myself dream of having help like that.

More by good luck than good planning, my talk finished just minutes before the International Space Station was due to glide across the Cumbrian sky (hmmm, good name for a blog that!), so everyone raced for their coats, pulled them on, and piled outside. It was very cold out on the decking, but teh sky had stayed clear, and we were able to see Orion on one side of the school and the Plough on the other, and there was just enough time for me to point out some of the most obvious and interesting constellations and stars before the ISS appeared low in the west…

It was beautiful, it really was, and by the time the ISS was drifting through the stars of Orion it was wonderfully bright, and lots of the kids let out “wow!”s and “ooh!”s as it flew eastwards. I must admit I did too – it never fails to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I look up at the ISS and think to myself “There are PEOPLE on that…!!”

Having seen the ISS we all piled back inside to warm up, and to look at the meteorites I’d brought along. Again, all the kids were fascinated to see the bits of space rock and metal, and again, many of them, for some bizarre reason, lifted it to their noses to see what it smelled like! Answer: IT SMELLS OF YOUR OWN SWEATY HANDS!!! šŸ™‚

Finally, after handing out information sheets and NASA bookmarks we left the kids to their Sleepover, having had a thoroughly enjoyable and fun night. When they go well- when the kids are well behaved, the teachers supportive and the facilities good – a school talk is just wonderful fun, and I never get tired of doing them.

Finally, last night, I went with Stella to see a play at Cark – another small Cumbrian village, this time to the south of us, near Grange – and literally minutes before the play started we were able to watch the space station drifting across the sky again. But this time it was different. The ISS has just had some new solar panels fitted, giving it a much larger reflective surface, and the difference was very obvious – at its highest the ISS was as bright as a magnesium flare, simply stunningly bright, and we were both open-mouthed with appreciation and wonder as we watched it arc towards and then drop down through Leo. It’s easily brighter than Venus now, easily the brightest thing in the sky after the Sun and Moon.

The ISS orbit is essentially 90 minutes long, meaning passes are 90 minutes apart. AndĀ with absolutely fantastic and very unusual timing, the play had its intermission at just before 9pm, literally minutes before the next ISS pass was due, so we ran outside to watch it again. This time it was much lower, and nowhere near as bright as it had been the first time, but it still looked beautiful, and as we stood there, looking up at it, several people around us started to stare up at it too. When it became clear they didn’t know what it was I told them, and they were all absolutely thrilled, confirming again that most people have a tiny seed of interest in astronomy hidden away inside them, you just have to shine some light on it, feed itĀ and encourage it to grow.

So, it was quite a few days! I reckon that by midnight last night I’d “Spread The Word” to almost a hundred people. Which doesn’t sound a lot, I know, but that’s a hundred people who now look at the night sky a little differently…. aĀ hundred people who now know that it ISN’T “always the same up there”, that things happen, exciting things, increduible things! … a hundred people who will tell their own friends and family – maybe another hundred people? – about what they saw and encourage them to do the same…

And that, for me, is what Outreach is all about. šŸ™‚


Following the recent fitting of a new pair of solar array “wings” to the ISS it is now magnificently bright in the night sky, far outshining Venus I thought last night, so I’ve decided to move all ISS visibility times to their own page, it just keeps things tidier. You can see a tab at the top right there which will take you to that page, but here’s a direct link if you want to copy it or email it to people.


The ISS was just fantastically bright the past couple of nights, so much brighter than it used to be, so I hope we get some more clear nights soon.

When to see the ISS

If you are a UK reader – from Cumbria or anywhere else – and you want to watch teh space station crossing the sky, here’s the info you need. Just click on the picture below to bring up a full size version, then print it out for safe keeping. We have some fantastic “space station passes” coming up over the next week or so, so fingers crossed for clear skies!


Batonaut – R.I.P

The shuttle Discovery docked safely and succesfully to the International Space Station last night… no damage was spotted on its underside when it performed its beautiful “backflip” before docking, and the two crews are now having a fine old time up in Earth orbit. This shuttle mission is going to see the ISS finally transformed into a real space station, with enough room, and more importantly enough power, to sustain a crew of 6 astronauts. We’re soon going to witness daring and dramatic spacewalks as astronauts attach and then unfurl the final pair of enormous solar array “wings”… but what is the world talking about most? What is the question on everyone’s lips?

“What happened to the bat?”

To re-cap, prior to the launch of Discovery at the weekend, a bat – thought at the time to be a fruit bat – was spotted clinging to the side of the external tank.


No-one was that concerned; NASA’s techs and mechs and most people watching launch preps on NASA TV were pretty sure it would fly away to safety when the shuttle started rattling and rumbling and coming to life in the minutes before blast-off. But things didn’t turn out that way. The bat was still clearly attached to the external tank as Discovery’s main engines fired, and still hadn’t detached itself and flown off as the SRBs ignited and Discovery began to haul herself off the pad. As the shuttle cleared the tower there was apparently a last fleeting glimpse of the bat, still clinging to the tank, then it vanished from view…

Afterwards, NASA officials stated that they were pretty sure the bat unfortunately hadn’t survived the launch, which upset a few onlookers who suggested that NASA should have made efforts to encourage the bat to fly off Discovery before it blasted off, but obviously it was a little late for that.

Well, today fresh light is shone on this Ā story in a fascinating piece on Universe Today, written by Ian O’Neil. The story explains that, for a start, the bat wasn’t a fruit bat, it was a free-tailed bat, and then goes on to explain that the reason why it hadn’t flown off as the shuttle came to life was because it probably had a broken wing and couldn’t fly anyway. Of course, that also means that it couldn’t fly off AT ALL, so it almost certainly met a rather grisly end as Discovery ascended. If fell off then it probably fell into one of the exhaust plumes thundering out of one of the SRBs or main engines, so would have… well, “pooof!” just about sums it up. If it somehow managed to cling on then it would have run out of air quite soon after launch as the shuttle lanced through the atmosphere. It certainly didn’t get to hitch a lift on the ET up into orbit and fall back down to Earth on it, riding it like Slim Pickins riding that nuke at the end of DR STRANGELOVE. Sadly, there was no tiny, batty squeak of “Yee-ha! Yeeeeeee ha!”…

So, a sad end to the story. But I can’t help thinking there’s a film in this. It’s not hard to imagine a meeting taking place right now in some back room at Disney, with a group of execs listening to a producer making a pitch…

“It’s theĀ story of a simple bat who had a dreamā€¦ to be the most famous bat EVER, and to fly higher than any bat had ever flown beforeā€¦

“Ignoring his poor background, and his family’s tragic poverty, he drags himself out of the slums of bat town and stows away on a passing bus. He doesn’t care where it was going, as long as it is going somewhere, but as luck would have it the bus is heading for Florida, to the Kennedy Space Centre, taking a group of kids there to watch a space shuttle launch.

“Riding the bus our hero bat hears, through the roof, the excited conversation of the kids inside, all looking forward to the blast-off, and a flame of inspiration ignites inside his little bat chest – he would be the first bat into space!

“Reaching KSC he flies off the bus and heads for the launch pad – but a freak gust of wind knocks him off balance and sends him smashing into the external tank! Soon he is sliding and slipping down the tank, but somehow he manages to find a claw-hold, and there he clings on, bravely ignoring the pain from his broken wing, watching the launch preparations belowā€¦

When the launch comes Brian clings on for dear life, and as the shuttle shakes and shudders beneath him, Ā and clears the tower, he looksĀ down at the world shrinking below, and up at the achingly blue sky above, and knows his dream is about to come trueā€¦ he HAS flown higher than any bat had flown beforeā€¦!

Then the world starts to go dark… and the bat begins to see the stars coming out…”

(cue rising orchestral music and weeping in the audience)

I’d love to see what Danny Boyle made of that…! šŸ™‚