frog in rocket launch

That's one giant leap for frogkind. (Photo: NASA/Wallops/Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport)

NASA dazzled spectators last week when it launched its LADEE moon probe from a Virginia spaceport, and excited scientists with the prospect of demystifying the lunar atmosphere.

The launch didn't turn out so well for everyone, though. As the photo above shows, an unfortunate frog found itself in the crosshairs of science Sept. 6 when the LADEE-laden Minotaur V rocket took off from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in coastal Virginia.

The image may seem too Looney Tunes to be true, but NASA vouches for it. "A still camera on a sound trigger captured this intriguing photo of an airborne frog as NASA's LADEE spacecraft lifts off," the agency says. "The photo team confirms the frog is real and was captured in a single frame by one of the remote cameras used to photograph the launch."

"The condition of the frog, however, is uncertain," it adds.

We may never know if the frog fancied itself an amphibious Neil Armstrong, but its misfortune is more likely due to the launchpad's location. Wallops Flight Facility is on a barrier island blanketed by salt marsh, and much of its surroundings are perfectly suitable frog habitat. As Nancy Atkinson of Universe Today points out, a deceptively tranquil launchpad pool may have lured the frog into its fiery front-row seat.

"The launchpad at the Wallops/Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport has a 'pool' for the high-volume water deluge system that activates during launches to protect the pad from damage and for noise suppression," Atkinson writes, "and likely there was a (formerly) damp, cool place that was a nice spot for a frog to hang out."

If the frog did somehow survive, hopefully it learned the difference between lily pads and launchpads: The spaceport has another launch scheduled for Sept. 18.

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