Oct. 18, 1989: Galileo Begins Jupiter Journey

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  Space News Business

Oct. 18, 1989: Galileo Begins Jupiter Journey

By CLINTON PARKS
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 01 November 2007
03:41 pm ET





Washington



Eighteen years ago, the flagship-class planetary explorer Galileo was released in Earth orbit by




Space Shuttle Atlantis




to begin its six-year journey to Jupiter and its moons.



Despite delays and a primary equipment failure, Galileo




provided more information about the jovian system




than NASA’s




previous Pioneer or Voyager missions, which flew past but did not orbit the gas giant.



The spacecraft was




named after Galileo Galelei, the 17th century Italian astronomer









who first observed Jupiter via telescope. Development of the mission began




in 1977 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

Not only was Galileo’s launch postponed when the space shuttle fleet was grounded by the




January 1986 Challenger explosion, new safety rules imposed in the wake of the accident forced NASA planners to rethink how they would get to Jupiter. Originally the probe was to use a Centaur rocket stage to boost it out of Earth orbit, but after Challenger the cryogenic upper stage was deemed unsafe to launch in the shuttle’s cargo bay. Instead, NASA had to use the less-powerful Initial Upper Stage, which used a more stable propellant.







As a result,




JPL had to map out a new itinerary that included a series of




planetary gravity-assists-one from Venus and two from Earth. On its convoluted route Galileo made observations of Venus, Earth, the Moon and even two asteroids – Gaspra and Ida – before reaching the jovian




system.

It was during these flybys that a




mechanical error was




discovered that




put the entire mission in jeopardy: the high-gain antenna that was to transmit Galileo’s vast data harvest back to Earth refused to unfurl upon command.




After failing to fix the balky antenna,




JPL engineers compensated for the loss by sending data through the emergency low-gain antenna, which transmitted at a much slower rate. Galileo’s




on-board computer system and Earth-based receivers were reconfigured with new software and data compression capabilities to maximize the data return at the lower transmission rates.





While still on




its way to Jupiter, Galileo captured




a direct view of the Comet Shoemaker-Levy slamming




into




Jupiter-the first direct observation of a comet hitting a planet-in July 1994.

On July 13, 1995, as it neared its destination, Galileo released a probe




which




entered Jupiter’s atmosphere Dec. 7 to make the first in-situ measurements of a gas giant. During its descent, the probe




sent back 58 minutes of data




on Jupiter’s chemical composition, temperature and pressure.

That same day, the Galileo mothership entered into its highly elliptical orbit about Jupiter.

Together the spacecraft




provided a greater understanding of Jupiter’s ammonia clouds, radiation belt and its enormous magnetosphere. The planet was found to contain a lot less water vapor than previous probe scans




indicated. Jupiter also was




found to have lightning storms that were




far less frequent




but far more powerful




than those on




Earth.

Though Galileo’s primary mission was completed at the end of 1997, NASA extended its mission for another six years.

This extended mission focused on Jupiter’s 63 moons




– 23 of which the Galileo spacecraft discovered – mainly Io, Callisto, Ganymede and Europa.

The surface of Io was found to have changed substantially since it was last observed




by the Voyagers




due to




volcanic activity. In fact, based on Galileo’s observations, scientists declared Io to be




the most volcanically dynamic body in the solar system




.

Ganymede, larger than Mercury, was found to have its own magnetosphere – the only moon known to possess one.




Ganymede, along with




Callisto, also was




found




to possibly contain liquid seawater.

But neither Ganymede nor Callisto had the amount of water believed to lie




1,000 kilometers beneath Europa’s ice sheath. Europa




is thought to have more liquid seawater than Earth, and scientists believe the conditions necessary to support life may exist on the moon.





Galileo’s epic mission ended Sept. 21, 2003. With the spacecraft having




nearly depleted its storage of propellant and unable to reposition itself to send data back to Earth, JPL scientists sent it to burn up




in Jupiter’s atmosphere




rather than taking the chance of it




crashing onto a moon




like Europa




and possibly contaminating




it with Earth




bacteria.