Galileo's Gifts

That intrepid little space probe Galileo just keeps on giving - laudably relaying stunning pictures and tons of scientific data about the massive planet Jupiter and its mysterious moons.

From its launch in 1989, it took six years for the Galileo Orbiter to get to Jupiter. And though it arrived at its destination with an antenna that failed to open fully, its tape recorder has been working overtime, thanks to NASA scientists who recently finished a complicated repair job.

Not only that, Galileo has delivered a bonus to NASA, running an extra five years past its original scheduled completion date - much longer than scientists expected.

Galileo's mission has been extraordinary by other measures: It's accomplished some 37 flybys of Jupiter and its moons since 1995. It's survived five different events that prompted it to shut down temporarily. (The probe was last partially turned off in November in preparation for an intense radiation blast as it flew by Amalthea, one of Jupiter's inner moons.) Each problem was solved, and valiant little Galileo carried on.

Because of Galileo, scientists have a better understanding of the moon Io's mountains and volcanos, and Jupiter's magnetic field and radiation belt. Most interesting, perhaps, is Galileo's discovery of a subsurface ocean on the Jovian moon, Europa, which some scientists think may have provided a suitable home for extraterrestrial life.

Fittingly, the probe will crash in September into the very planet which its namesake, the great astronomer Galileo Galelei, discovered with a crude, homemade telescope in 1610.

With the Galileo probe, mankind once again reaps the benefits from an innate desire to know more about worlds beyond Earth. The end of Galileo, of course, is not the end of planetary exploration. In fact, the space probe Cassini, launched in 1997, reaches Saturn in 2004.

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