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NASA to Send Spacecraft to Its Demise

The Galileo orbiter , short on fuel, will plunge into Jupiter's thick atmosphere.

September 18, 2003|Usha Lee McFarling | Times Staff Writer

NASA engineers normally do everything they can to keep spacecraft up and running. On Sunday, they will intentionally send one of their most successful veteran explorers crashing into Jupiter's atmosphere in a dramatic suicide plunge.

The aging Galileo spacecraft will plummet into Jupiter's turbulent atmosphere at speeds reaching 108,000 mph, NASA officials said at a briefing Wednesday to detail the hardy spacecraft's impending demise. Death will be swift.

"Frictional forces will tear it apart. Small pieces will probably vaporize. Other pieces will fall further until they vaporize or are crushed," said Claudia J. Alexander, Galileo's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Galileo, poor thing, was never designed to enter the atmosphere."

Galileo, the only spacecraft to orbit an outer planet, was dispatched to study Jupiter and its moons in 1989. By the time of impact it will have traveled 2.8 billion miles and spent eight years circling Jupiter.

The spacecraft reached Jupiter in 1995 and was scheduled to operate for two years, its lifetime limited by the electronics-frying radiation that surrounds the giant planet.

The spacecraft was crippled early on by problems with its major antenna and data tape recorder.

But engineers surmounted those problems and the sturdy spacecraft continued functioning despite absorbing four times the radiation it was designed for. Its mission was extended three times. Although Galileo is still functioning, its fuel tank is nearly empty, meaning it will soon be uncontrollable.

Most retired spacecraft are simply left orbiting or sent into the distant reaches of the solar system. But Galileo sealed its own fate by proving there is a liquid ocean underneath the icy surface of Jupiter's moon Europa.

Because many scientists think this ocean could harbor life, they do not want to risk contaminating the moon should Galileo accidentally crash into it.

Galileo will be working until its final few minutes. Engineers are directing Galileo to take one last look at Jupiter's tiny moon Amalthea to see if objects are orbiting around it, as earlier observations suggested.

More than 1,000 people who worked on Galileo are expected to spend Sunday at JPL to monitor the spacecraft's final messages back to Earth and raise a toast at Galileo's funeral.

"It's a nice, final closure," said John Casani, Galileo's first project manager. "Sometimes it's easier on the family when someone near the end just goes."

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