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Galileo's close encounter with Jupiter

Probe starts descent into swirling atmosphere

Galileo

December 6, 1995
Web posted at: 7:45 a.m. EST

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- The Galileo space probe embarked on its suicide mission Tuesday, beginning its plunge into Jupiter's gaseous, whirling clouds. Before its inevitable destruction, it will have a brief time to gather precious information about what the solar system's largest planet is made of. (1 MB QuickTime movie)

Galileo with parachute open

The spacecraft Galileo will receive immediate data for about 75 minutes from the probe as it parachutes through Jupiter's clouds Thursday before the atmospheric pressure crushes it or it burns up in the 400 degree Fahrenheit environment.

Named after the Italian astronomer who discovered Jupiter's four largest moons in 1610, Galileo is scheduled to fire its main engines December 7 to put it into orbit around the planet for about two years.

The event will mark a new era for the six-year, 2.3 billion-mile exploration that has been troubled by technical glitches and the worst interplanetary storm ever recorded.

Jupiter

The probe is packed with scientific instruments designed to gather as much information as possible about the chemical composition of Jupiter's clouds. Researchers are particularly interested in finding out if water is present in Jupiter's atmosphere, the outer layers of which consist largely of ammonia clouds.

Scientists don't know if Jupiter has a solid core of any kind at all, but they have speculated that if it does, it might be hydrogen metal.

Galileo's close encounter with the largest planet about 600 million miles from Earth represents the culmination of a nearly 20-year program aimed at learning about the gigantic Jovian system. The study could reveal important clues about the formation and evolution of the solar system.

By the time Galileo completes its 16 separate scientific experiments and burns itself to death at the end of 1997, the cost of the mission will have totaled $1.35 billion, NASA said.

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