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When Galileo Was Still Circling
Jupiter Valentine

Galileo, with 2.5 billion miles ahead

In honor of Galileo’s 443 rd birthday today I thought it’d be fitting to revisit Galileo the spacecraft, which happens to be one of NASA’s most famous suicide bombers: On October 18, 1989, space shuttle Atlantis lifted off Cape Canaveral with the 2.5-ton Galileo spacecraft in its cargo bay (the 31 st of what have added up to 117 flights of that sorry program, two of which ended in disaster). Five orbits later, Atlantis opened its cargo bay and released Galileo, a $1.5 billion piece of machinery. Five days later Galileo had already completed one million of its 2.5 billion-mile journey to Jupiter, but in the wrong direction. It headed for Venus. Then it swung around Earth. Twice. (And took this wonderful shot of Earth and the Moon necking). Naturally, because the spacecraft hung around earth too long, its main antenna failed. A smaller back-up antenna did all the work anyway, sending us those terrific pictures of Shoemaker-Levy 9, the suicidal comet, crash into Jupiter, where Galileo then arrived, appropriately, on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1995. Only seven years late. The Jovian welcoming committee was long gone (Galileo had originally been scheduled to launch in 1982. The space shuttle’s endless delays and Challenger’s explosion set things back). A week after Galileo’s arrival the Dayton peace accord ending the Balkan wars was signed. Go figure. A few months later a weather probe was dropped into Jupiter’s atmosphere. That thing’s journey took five months to get to the cloud cover and send back a weather report, which added up to this: dry, windy, hot. Then it melted. The mother ship orbited Jupiter for a couple of years, then discovered the beauty that is Europa, moon of ice and sinuously unresolved mysteries. What we do know is that salt water scours beneath that ice. What we don’t know is the whereabouts of Europa’s Nemo—the captain and his submarine, not the fish and his DeGenerate voice. But to eliminate any chance that Galileo’s earthy machinery might contaminate Europa by crashing there, the spacecraft, on September 21, 2003, nobly sacrificed itself by plunging into the atmosphere of Jupiter, where it burned. The tantalizing mysteries of Europa remain, as does a question: when next NASA or anyone else hopes to explore Europa, and delve into its ocean, how will it be done without risk of doing to that moon what, say, Columbus’s syphilitic men did to America’s natives?

The nobility of Europa
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