The Galileo Mission: Hard-Won But Successful

The trip took six years, and just about everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. The main antenna that was supposed to send valuable data back to Earth refused to open, the tape recorder that was to preserve the data jammed, and the craft got zapped so many times by the radiation belt around Jupiter that some of its instruments were nearly fried.

But the wizards at NASA figured out how to deal with those setbacks, and scientists got nearly everything they had hoped for, plus a lot more. On the way to Jupiter Galileo passed by two asteroids, the first spacecraft to do so, and it explored not only Jupiter but its show-stealing moons as well.

There was Europa, with at least some of the conditions that are believed to be necessary for life, and Io, so volcanically active that one area the size of New Jersey had been completely resurfaced in the 17 years since another spacecraft, Voyager, had passed that way.

There have been so many discoveries in the six years that Galileo has been touring the Jovian system that textbooks have had to be rewritten. But in the end, it was Europa that did Galileo in.

Sacrificed for a Microbe

NASA seems a bit obsessed with the idea of finding life somewhere, even if it's just a few tiny microbes. In fact, one microbe would do nicely.

That would prove that life has originated on a body other than Earth, and thus might abound throughout the universe.

That's a tall order for a single microbe. It just wouldn't do to get to Europa in the years ahead and indeed find microbes, but microbes that came from Earth as stowaways aboard Galileo.

So bon voyage Galileo. And thanks for the trip.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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