The human race will reach a half-billion miles across space and touch the colossus of the solar system next week when NASA’s Galileo space probe parachutes into the atmosphere of Jupiter.
The probe’s 75-minute descent through the gas giant’s upper layers on Thursday will be the first time a manmade object will touch any planet beyond Mars, if all goes as planned.
The Jupiter mission could unlock secrets of the solar system’s creation, astronomer Toby Owen of the University of Hawaii said during a briefing at the National Aeronautic and Space Administration’s Ames Research Center south of San Francisco.
“Jupiter is a giant ruin left over from events we hardly understand,” he said.
“It’s like opening a tube that has been sealed for 4-1/2 billion years.”
Unlike Earth, Jupiter is still made of the original gas and dust that congealed to form the sun and planets. And unlike the sun, which has transformed that material through nuclear explosion, the mix on Jupiter has undergone little change.
Richard Young of Ames said the exciting part of the mission is not what scientists expect to find, but what they don’t expect.”We know we’re going to get big surprises,” he said.
The Galileo project took almost 20 years and cost some $1.4 billion. The craft was launched from the space shuttle Atlantis on Oct. 18, 1989.