CNN Technology

Probe set for 'suicide' plunge to Jupiter

December 1, 1995
Web posted at: 1 a.m. EST

From Correspondent Rusty Dornin

Jupiter

MOUNTAIN VIEW, California (CNN) -- The countdown is on for a suicide mission in space.

Next week, the Galileo probe will dive into Jupiter's atmosphere, giving scientists their glimpse of the gaseous exterior of the solar system's largest planet.

space probe

When the Galileo space probe plunges into the swirling gases of Jupiter's atmosphere next week, it will break the speed record of all objects made by humans.

Project manager Marcy Smith of the NASA Ames Research Center said the probe would hit the planet at over 100,000 mph. "The temperature of the bow shock in front of the probe will be more than twice the surface temperature of the sun," she noted.

As 250 mph winds buffet the probe, its descent will then be slowed by a parachute. As if that weren't enough, there could be a small chance of a thunderstorm or two.

Against the seeming odds, scientists expect the probe to feed back data to the orbiter for 75 minutes before the orbiter turns away, mesmerized by Jupiter's tremendous gravitational pull.

Mission complete, the probe will be sacrificed, crushed by the overwhelming heat and pressure. (1.6M QuickTime movie)

Never before has a spacecraft probed below the surface layer of ammonia ice clouds. Researcher Richard Young said its a fluid mix of hydrogen and helium mostly -- something between liquid and gas. "Where we're going it's mostly gas," he said.

It's a mixture that hasn't changed much since the birth of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago.

David Morrison

David Morrison likens the exploration to opening up an ancient tomb. "All the other planets have suffered since their formation, " he said. "They lost their gas, they've lost part of their material, they've changed geologically. Jupiter is so big that it was able to hold on to all that original stuff."

Scientists are hoping that "stuff" may reveal the building blocks of the universe.

No signals have been received from the probe since it was pushed from the orbiter five months ago. Scientists are counting on the final 1 hour burst of information to unveil some spectacular surprises.

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