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NASA is investigating the possibility that two pieces of debris fell from the Shuttle Discovery during its launch yesterday. The space agency says it also looks like the craft hit a bird in the very early stages of its journey to space.

One piece of debris appears to have affected a heatshield tile on the underside of the craft.

Video footage of the launch shows what looks like a tile falling away from the Shuttle. A white patch was left behind when the object fell away, but mission controllers say it could be damage to the black covering, and that the heatshield itself could still be intact.

Discovery is the first Shuttle to fly since the loss of the Columbia in March 2003. Falling debris is thought to have damaged Columbia on lift-off, ultimately leading to its breakup as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere. All crew on board were lost.

Thanks to safety modifications made to the Shuttle since the disaster, the crew will now be able to inspect the exterior of the Shuttle using a battery of sensors on the end of a 50ft-long robotic arm. The inspection will take place over the course of several hours on flight day three, NASA said. ®

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