Remember the Ariane 5 rocket that successfully lifted off from French Guiana on Friday morning, carrying the JUICE (Jupiter Ice Moons Explorer) spacecraft? As exciting as the launch was for space fans, a random sloth stole plenty of hearts when it photo-bombed the live-streamed feed on ESA Web TV. The plucky sloth—nicknamed Gerard, or Jerry, by viewers—stared calmly into a European Space Agency (ESA) camera with the rocket poised for launch just behind it.
As Eric Berger previously reported, with a mass of 6 metric tons, JUICE is the largest deep space mission launched by the ESA and one of the largest by any nation to the outer planets. The mission will explore Jupiter’s environment and probe beneath the surface of its icy moons (between 80 and 95 in all). It should arrive at the planet by July 2031. But on launch day, all eyes were briefly on Jerry. “Apart from the launch, this guy is definitely the star of the telecast,” science writer Nadia Drake wrote on the ESA’s Facebook page.
As far as anyone knows, nothing bad happened to Jerry and he’s alive and well and looking forward to watching the next rocket launch. Past animals who’ve stumbled into the vicinity of a launch have been less fortunate. Remember “Space Toad”? Back in 2013, as NASA’s unmanned LADEE rocket launched, one of three still cameras set up around the launch area captured a small frog mid-leap in the air against a fiery plume in the background.
NASA spokesperson Chris Perry told ABC News at the time that the frog likely lived in the nearby marsh lands around the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, and was drawn to the area hoping to find an abundance of flies to eat. since there’s a “pool” near the launch pad for the high-volume water deluge system that suppresses launch noise and protects the pad. But since the frog looked to be a mere 150 feet away from the rocket when it launched, it most likely met a fiery end. R.I.P. Space Toad.
Then there was “Space Bat” in 2009: a bat that latched onto the external fuel tank of Space Shuttle Discovery just before the launch of the STS-119 mission at the Kennedy Space Center. That NASA launch site coexists with the Merritt Island National Wildlife Reserve, and while NASA employs a number of strategies to protect and warn off local wildlife prior to launches, this particular bat was not deterred.
The crew noticed the bat while making their rounds to check for icy buildup on the fuel tanks as the tanks were being filled. They thought the bat would wake up and fly away well before it was time to launch, so they proceeded with the preparations. But not even the roar of the engines igniting, and a shaking spacecraft, were sufficient to dislodge the creature. Not only did it stay in place, it shifted position a few times, so it wasn’t cryogenically frozen in place by the low temperatures of the liquid hydrogen used as propellants. And it hung on for the entire launch, as NASA officials tracked its location with infrared cameras. Like Space Toad, the plucky bat likely perished in its attempt to be the very first bat astronaut. R.I.P. Space Bat.
Kennedy Space Center has also had problems with turkey vultures, notably in July 2005, when a vulture struck Discovery‘s external tank just after liftoff. The vulture also perished. NASA engineers worried that the impact might prove catastrophic—a turkey vulture weighs between three to five pounds, sufficient to knock off foam chunks from critical areas of the shuttle. A loose foam chunk weighing just 1.7 pounds was determined to be the cause of the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, after it struck the shuttle’s wing. Fortunately, the tragedy was not repeated—except for the loss of the vulture. R.I.P. Space Vulture.
Local woodpeckers proved more fortunate when they famously delayed a 1995 Discovery launch by poking as many as 78 holes—some as wide as 4 inches in diameter—in the foam insulation of the shuttle’s external fuel take and solid rocket booster joints. Workers had to use a 20-25-story crane to repair some of the higher-up holes. Why the birds decided to peck holes in the shuttle was a bit of a mystery, a wildlife refuge manager told UPI at the time, since they normally peck for food, and the foam didn’t have any tasty insects that the peckers love to consume. Nor does the foam have the same acoustic properties for drumming—a way for the birds to mark territory.
The JUICE sloth was equally fortunate, and didn’t cause any damage or delay the launch to boot. Europe decided to fly the mission after NASA’s Galileo and Cassini probes discovered that some of the moons around Jupiter and Saturn were covered in ice and likely harbored large, subsurface oceans where microbial life might exist. Because the spacecraft is so massive, it will require several planetary flybys to build up the energy to reach the Jovian system. JUICE will fly by Earth three times, as well as Venus, before entering orbit around Jupiter in 2031. Then, from 2031 through 2034, it will make nearly three dozen flybys of Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto, exploring their icy shells in greater detail. JUICE will drop down to within 200 km of some of these worlds, giving us by far our best look yet at them.