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Bird Strikes Threaten Space Shuttles Too

The reported crash of a passenger jet in New York's Hudson River after a bird strike is a reminder of NASA's preparations to safeguard its space-shuttle fleet against the same threat.

Officials think one or more engines were struck by birds. The jet engines are fragile, and slight damage can cause a cascade of failure.

Airplane-bird strikes are common. NASA has some experience with the risk, too.

Since 2005, officials at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., have kept a keen eye for flocks of birds nearby launching and landing space shuttles to make sure the birds don't endanger astronauts aboard the spacecraft or themselves.

"There's been a bird abatement program," NASA spokesperson Allard Beutel told SPACE.com from the spaceport Thursday. "We actually have bird radar."

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In 2005, a large turkey vulture collided with the back of the space shuttle Discovery's external tank during NASA's first flight since the 2003 loss of the Columbia orbiter, which was destroyed during re-entry due to heat shield damage incurred during its launch two weeks earlier.

The 2005 bird strike incident proved fatal for the turkey vulture, but posed no risk to the shuttle Discovery since it occurred on the side of the external tank that faces away from the attached orbiter.

As a safety precaution, NASA undertook measures to reduce the potential for a bird strike to rain debris on a launching shuttle and damage its fragile heat shield.

The first step calls for employees to call in any reports of road kill around the space center, which can attract flocks of large, ravenous turkey vultures.

"We're in the middle of a wildlife refuge," Beutel said of the Florida launch site, which sits in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. "There are going to be birds out there."

Since 2005, NASA launch officials now track flocks of birds by radar during a launch. There is also a point during launch countdowns when NASA officials can hold the liftoff a few minutes to allow an interfering flock to fly out of a shuttle's launch path.

Sound cannons are used to scare birds away from the space centers Shuttle Landing Facility before an orbiter returns to reduce the risk of interference during landing.

A massive flock of birds slamming into a landing space shuttle, which has no engines and functions as a 100-ton glider, can damage the orbiter or even slow its descent to the point that it lands well short of its intended spot, Beutel said.

"You don't want to run into a bird and possibly slow your glide down, because we can't come around again for another try," he said.

At the same time, Beutel said, efforts are made to not injury the preserve's avian population.

"We're not looking to kill any wildlife," Beutel said. "But you've also got to protect the astronauts."

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