A 746-pound probe from the Galileo spacecraft entered the harsh, whirling gases of Jupiter’s atmosphere Thursday and sent back 75 minutes of precious data before it disintegrated.
After receiving weather and chemical data from the probe, Galileo fired its thrusters to push the spacecraft into orbit around Jupiter for two years of study.
NASA workers cheered and there were handshakes and back slaps all around when it was confirmed at 3:15 p.m. that the probe was transmitting information back to its trailing Galileo mother ship.
After slamming into the atmosphere at 106,000 mph, the giant, squat cone dropped more than 125 miles by parachute, sending data for 75 minutes before being crushed by air pressure 20 times greater than Earth’s.
“We’ve never, never sampled a giant planet. We’ll figure out what this atmosphere is made of over 600 million miles away,” said Wesley T. Huntress, NASA associate administrator for space science.
Previous space missions have analyzed the atmospheres of Mars and Venus. But Jupiter is different; the giant planet is surrounded by powerful magnetic fields and intense radiation, and is made up mostly of hydrogen and helium, the elements in the primordial mix that once condensed into the solar system.
Scientists monitoring the events on closed-circuit television in an auditorium at the laboratory burst into applause again after getting confirmation that Galileo had begun a 49-minute engine burn to send the spacecraft into orbit. “We’ve done it! We’ve got confirmation,” said Richard Terrile, a NASA scientist.
The orbits around Jupiter are expected to provide images of eight of the planet’s 16 known moons.
By illuminating Jupiter’s moons, as well as the planet’s rings, its intense magnetic field and its swarms of dust and charged particles, the mission could give the best view ever of the planet’s composition.
Up to now, the best glimpses of extraterrestrial bodies have come from the Hubble Space Telescope.
Detailed data from the atmospheric encounter won’t be available until mid-December at the earliest.
Scientists speculated that after the probe passed through a high layer of ammonia crystal clouds, it would reach a stew of ammonia compounds swirling in hurricane winds up to 200 mph. After that, scientists said, the probe would probably encounter heavy rain and lightning before being vaporized by the heat and pressure.