Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Arrivaderci, Galileo

Once again, Jupiter and its moons were the downfall of Galileo.

This time, though, it's a bittersweet ending rather than imprisonment by the Church. The space probe Galileo, named after the astronomer who discovered Jupiter's moons with his new telescope, was deliberately "crashed" into Jupiter so that it wouldn't eventually crash onto any of the moons which might harbor life. The probe was never sterilized before launch because nobody thought it was necessary, but over the years they've found oceans on Europa, and we don't want to contaminate the moon inadvertantly. So with the little propellant left, Galileo was sent to a crushing end in the gas giant - screaming in at over 100,000 mph, its booms and antennae ripped off, its main body melted and disintegrated, finally being reduced to its constituent atoms in the swirling winds.

One wonders if the Jovian version of Greenpeace worried much about the RTGs that Galileo carried.

I remember the launch of STS-34 in 1989 - seeing it on TV, unfortunately. We had just resumed flying shuttles a year before and this was part of the backlog of payloads. How cool was it to be part of the team that sent this probe on its way to Jupiter, not to mention Magellan to Venus and Ulysses to a solar polar orbit. I almost got to see the launch in person, but mechanical delays put off the launch until well after I had left Florida. Would have been my first launch, instead it turned into the first of three launch misses.

An engineering marvel in hindsight, the Galileo team redesigned the probe and its missions many times between its proposal in 1977 to its near-launch in 1986 (stalled by the Challenger accident) to its launch in 1989 and beyond. The delays resulted in a problem with its high-gain antenna (HGA) being stuck, which caused the NASA team to completely rewrite and upload the operating software - a brain transplant by remote control.

A joker in the sci.space.history newsgroup suggested that the last message from Galileo was "HGA is now free".

I responded with "All these worlds are yours except Europa. Attempt no landings there." Ironic, in that when the movie "2010" came out, we didn't really have much of an idea that Europa might be life-sustaining to begin with, yet here we are today crashing Galileo because it might be.

Of course, someone else had to respond to that with "All your moon are belong to us." Take off every zig, for great justice!

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