HOUSTON — NASA will embark on another tour of the solar system Thursday when the shuttle Atlantis lifts off from Cape Canaveral with the Galileo space probe aboard. If all goes as scheduled, the $1.4 billion Galileo will be released from the shuttle six hours and 21 minutes after Atlantis's launch and begin a circuitous voyage that will take it once around Venus and twice around the Earth before it arrives at Jupiter on Dec. 7, 1995.
Once there, the unmanned, nuclear-powered craft will orbit the planet for 22 months, beaming back data that scientists hope will give clues to the origins not only of Jupiter, but of the entire solar system. ``We expect to find an atmosphere that in effect gives us a sample of the original materials from which all the planets formed. Jupiter's gravity is so huge that few if any of the elements escaped over the 4.5 billion years since the solar system began,'' says Galileo project scientist Torrence Johnson.
Several activist groups filed suit on Sept. 28 to try to stop the launch. They charged that the Bush administration and NASA suppressed information on the danger of a possible release of the radioactive material powering Galileo's array of computers and sensors.