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The Engineer

The Life and Times of Donald F. Simmons

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Goodbye Galileo

The Galileo spacecraft, which has spent the last eight years in orbit about Jupiter, meets a fiery end today when it will be sent plunging into Jupiter, burning up in its atmosphere. Thus definitively ending its mission.

The spacecraft has had a long and hard history. Originally conceived in the 70s, its launch (from the shuttle) was pushed back years because of the Challenger disaster. When it finally went up on Atlantis in 1989, it was equipped with a less powerful booster than planned, as the larger booster was now thought it be too dangerous for the shuttle. As a result, instead of a direct flight to Jupiter, it spent six years doing gravity maneuvers about Venus, Earth, and Earth again. But as a bonus, it passed by two asteroids on the way and got our first good pictures of them, as well as pictures of Jupiter when comet Shoemaker-Levy hit it.

As a non-bonus, after launch its high-gain antenna wouldn't open, so the entire mission has been performed using its much lower bandwidth low-gain antenna. This is the equivalent of expecting a broadband connection and having to make due with a 26K dial-up.

Anyway, once it finally made it into orbit about Jupiter in 1995 (dropping a probe into Jupiter's atmosphere), it has made multiple flybys of its moons and vastly increased our knowledge about them, besides discovering 21 new ones (albeit tiny ones). One of its most important discoveries is that the moon Europa very likely has a liquid ocean underneath its icy surface.

The idea that life just might exist in this ocean was what lead to the decision about Galileo's final end. The craft is almost out of maneuvering fuel, and there were worries that it might crash into Europa once it was out and contaminate the surface. So it's taking the big step today.

It's probably going to be a decade at least till we get back to Jupiter, thanks to the shuttle and the space station eating all of NASA's money. While Cassini will be arriving at Saturn next year, considering the dearth of funding right now, it's hard not to see the great age of planetary exploration as practically over.

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What about JIMO? Although that's about ten years from being ready.

They're talking about 2012 for the launch now, and over two years to get there. Considering that they'll have to integrate some new technologies together (it's to have a nuclear powered ion engine) it would be hardly surprising if that date slipped more, especially considering the resistance from the anti-nuclear space nuts.

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