Some $250 million in technology hit Jupiter’s atmosphere at 2:04 p.m. Thursday, and all David Atkinson could do was rely on the watch on his wrist to get him through the next hour.
That was roughly the time it would take for a radio signal to travel half a billion miles from Jupiter to Earth.
Then the University of Idaho electrical engineering professor would know if the bulk of his professional life would bear fruit aboard the Galileo space probe.
“For that hour I was thinking, ‘2:10, 2:20, where is the probe now?”’ he recalled Thursday night.
Atkinson was waiting anxiously in a computer room crowded with researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., when a fellow scientist unceremoniously said, “There it is.”
It was a confirmation signal from the Galileo orbiter saying that, yes, the probe was transmitting data as it hurtled in a blaze of glory toward the planet.
“People were just ecstatic,” said Atkinson, 39. “… It was just wonderful. It was real exciting.”
And amazing. The project had suffered so many setbacks that it had come to be thought of as an unmanned Apollo 13. On top of that, the logistics of hitting the moving target of Jupiter and not disintegrating at the edge of its atmosphere made the probe the most expensive and daring dart in the history of the solar system.
“To be perfectly honest with you, the first thing I thought of when he said we’ve got it was, ‘My god, it really worked,”’ Atkinson said.
Atkinson, who earned his doctorate at Washington State University, is one of eight scientists with probe experiments that range from looking at the jovian atmosphere’s temperature, pressure and density to analyzing radio emissions in the planet’s radiation belts.
Atkinson aims to determine the different wind speeds in the atmosphere by analyzing the rate at which radio signals changed while the probe was hurled crosswise during its descent.
The speeds are key to gauging the energy balance in the atmosphere - whether it comes from the sun or energy in the planet itself.
Atkinson said he expects Galileo’s tape recorder to send data from his experiment late Wednesday or early Thursday. In one or two weeks, he should know if the jovian winds are strong or weak beneath the planet’s cloud layer.
On Thursday, all he learned was the probe gathered data for at least the first 20 minutes of its 75-minute descent. For one day and years of planning, it was more than enough.
“That’s all the data we were expecting today,” he said. “That’s what we were waiting for - for 15 years in my case - and that’s what we got.”