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Final Orbit for Galileo

After almost 14 years in orbit, the Galileo space probe flew a kamikaze mission into Jupiter's atmosphere. The probe ploughed towards the planet and crashed into a ball of fire as scientists hailed its discoveries.


A computer-generated impression of Galileo and Jupiter

NASA's Galileo space probe was sent into space to increase understanding the planet Jupiter and its entourage of moons. Now the craft has met a violent end because it led scientists throughout the world to believe one of Jupiter's moons could be home to some early forms of life. They are celebrating the mission's success.

Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the United States hope the ageing probe -- launched into space by the Atlantis space shuttle in October 1989 -- will continue to transmit information until the very last. And although over the course of the years, the probe's instruments have been exposed to four times more radiation than they were designed to be able to withstand, NASA is confident the final images will be successfully retrieved.

Shaky beginnings

The mission didn't always look like it was going to be such a success, and began faltering even before blast off. The originally date for launching Galileo had to be postponed due to construction delays on the Atlantis space shuttle, and then again after the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take off in 1986. Once it was finally airborne, NASA and the German Space Agency (DLR) used the gravitational fields of Venus and Earth to pick up sufficient speed to propel the probe on its six year journey to Jupiter, the fifth planet from the sun.

The only major hiccup once the mission was up and running was when a five-meter long antenna, crucial to the speed of image transmission, became wedged at half height. For months scientist tried in vain to correct the problem but were eventually forced to admit defeat. From then on it was plain sailing for the probe, which sent back to earth the first multi-spectral images of the back side of the moon and photographic evidence of two close encounters with asteroids.

The dark side of Jupiter

In almost eight years, Galileo orbited the massive Jupiter a total of 34 times, revealing it's stormy nature and complex cloud system. But the mission, which has also shed light on the composition of the gas giant and how the early solar system was formed didn't only probe the true face of Jupiter, but its four moons as well. Io has been described as a beautiful inferno with volcanic landscapes of rolling lava, and scientists believe that beneath the massive ice sheet which covers much of Europa lays an ocean which could be home to some early forms of life.

The craft, which had been in space for twice as long as originally intended, was finally directed toward Jupiter's atmosphere as a preventative measure amidst concerns in the science community that the probe could be carrying bacteria which could ultimately spread to the moon Europa and interfere with the natural evolution of any primitive life forms that might already be there.

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