Galileo mission overview
Posted: September 20, 2003

NASA's Galileo spacecraft was designed to study the large, gaseous planet Jupiter, its moons and its surrounding magnetosphere, which is a magnetic bubble surrounding the planet. The craft was named for the Italian Renaissance scientist who discovered Jupiter's major moons in 1610.

The primary mission at Jupiter began when the spacecraft entered orbit in December 1995 and its descent probe, which had been released five months earlier, dove into the giant planet's atmosphere. Its primary mission included a 23-month, 11-orbit tour of the jovian system, including 10 close encounters of Jupiter's major moons. Although the primary mission was completed in December 1997, the mission has been extended three times since then. Galileo had 35 encounters of Jupiter's major moons - 11 with Europa, 8 with Callisto, 8 with Ganymede, 7 with Io and 1 with Amalthea. The mission will end when the spacecraft impacts Jupiter on Sunday, Sept. 21, 2003.

The Galileo spacecraft and its two-stage Inertial Upper Stage were carried into Earth orbit on October 18, 1989 by space shuttle Atlantis on mission STS-34. The two-stage Inertial Upper Stage solid rocket then accelerated the spacecraft out of Earth orbit toward the planet Venus for the first of three planetary "gravity assists" designed to boost Galileo toward Jupiter. In a gravity assist, the spacecraft flies close enough to a planet to be propelled by its gravity, creating a "slingshot" effect for the spacecraft. The Galileo mission had originally been designed for a direct flight of about three and a half years to Jupiter, using a three-stage Inertial Upper Stage. When that booster was canceled, plans were changed to a Centaur upper stage, and ultimately to the twostage Inertial Upper Stage, which precluded a direct trajectory. To save the project, Galileo engineers designed a flight path using planetary gravity assists.

Venus and Earth flybys
After flying past Venus at an altitude of 16,000 kilometers (nearly 10,000 miles) on February 10, 1990, the spacecraft swung past Earth at an altitude of 960 kilometers (597 miles) on December 8, 1990. That flyby increased Galileo's speed enough to send it on a two-year elliptical orbit around the Sun. The spacecraft returned for a second Earth swingby on December 8, 1992, at an altitude of 303 kilometers (188 miles). With this, Galileo left Earth for the third and final time and headed toward Jupiter.

The flight path provided opportunities for scientific observations. Scientists obtained the first views of mid-level clouds on Venus and confirmed the presence of lightning on that planet. They also made many Earth observations, mapped the surface of Earth's Moon, and observed its north polar regions.

Because of the modification in Galileo's trajectory, the spacecraft was exposed to a hotter environment than originally planned. To protect it from the Sun, project engineers devised a set of sunshades and pointed the top of the spacecraft toward the Sun, with the umbrella-like high-gain antenna furled until well after the first Earth flyby in December 1990. Flight controllers stayed in touch with the spacecraft through a pair of low-gain antennas, which send and receive data at a much slower rate.

High-gain antenna
The spacecraft was scheduled to deploy its 4.8-meter-diameter (16-foot) high-gain antenna in April 1991 as Galileo moved away from the Sun and the risk of overheating ended. The antenna, however, failed to deploy fully.

A special team performed extensive tests and determined that a few (probably three) of the antenna's 18 ribs were held by friction in the closed position. Despite exhaustive efforts to free the ribs, the antenna would not deploy. From 1993 to 1996, extensive new flight and ground software was developed, and ground stations of NASA's Deep Space Network were enhanced in order to perform the mission using the spacecraft's low-gain antennas.

Asteroid flybys
Galileo became the first spacecraft ever to encounter an asteroid when it passed Gaspra on October 29, 1991. It flew within just 1,601 kilometers (1,000 miles) of the stony asteroid's center at a relative speed of about 8 kilometers per second (18,000 miles per hour). Pictures and other data revealed a cratered, complex, irregular body about 20 by 12 by 11 kilometers (12.4 by 7.4 by 6.8 miles), with a thin covering of dust and rubble.

On August 28, 1993, Galileo carried out a second asteroid encounter, this time with a larger, more distant asteroid named Ida. Ida is about 55 kilometers (34 miles) long and 24 kilometers (15 miles) wide. Observations indicated that both Ida and Gaspra have magnetic fields, although Ida is older and its surface is covered with craters. Scientists discovered that Ida boasts its own moon, making it the first asteroid known to have a natural satellite. The tiny moon, named Dactyl, has a diameter of only about 1.5 kilometers (less than a mile). By determining Dactyl's orbit, scientists estimated Ida's density.

Comet Shoemaker-Levy
The discovery of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in March 1993 provided an exciting opportunity for Galileo's science teams and other astronomers. The comet was breaking up as it orbited Jupiter, and was headed to dive into the giant planet's atmosphere in July 1994.

The Galileo spacecraft, approaching Jupiter, was the only observation platform with a direct view of the cometıs impact area on Jupiter's far side. Despite the uncertainty of the predicted impact times, Galileo team members pre-programmed the spacecraft's science instruments to collect data and were able to obtain spectacular images of the comet impacts.

Jupiter arrival
On July 13, 1995, Galileo's descent probe, which had been carried aboard the parent spacecraft, was released and began a five-month freefall toward Jupiter. The probe had no engine or thrusters, so its flight path was established by pointing of the Galileo orbiter before the probe was released. Two weeks later, Galileo used its main rocket engine for the first time as it readjusted its flight path to arrive at the proper point at Jupiter.

Arrival day on December 7, 1995, turned out to be an extremely busy 24-hour period. When Galileo first reached Jupiter and while the probe was still approaching the planet, the orbiter flew by two of Jupiter's major moons - Europa and Io. Galileo passed Europa at an altitude of about 33,000 kilometers (20,000 miles), while the Io approach was at an altitude of about 900 kilometers (600 miles).

About four hours after leaving Io, the orbiter made its closest approach to Jupiter, encountering 25 times more radiation than the level considered deadly for humans.

Descent probe
Eight minutes later, the orbiter started receiving data from the descent probe, which slammed into the top of the Jovian atmosphere at a comet-like speed of 170,000 kilometers per hour (106,000 miles per hour). In the process, the probe withstood temperatures twice as hot as the Sun's surface. The probe slowed by aerodynamic braking for about two minutes before deploying its parachute and dropping a heat shield.

The wok-shaped probe floated down about 200 kilometers (125 miles) through the clouds, transmitting data to the orbiter on sunlight and heat flux, pressure, temperature, winds, lightning and atmospheric composition. Fifty-eight minutes into its descent, high temperatures silenced the probe's transmitters. The probe sent data from a depth with a pressure 23 times that of the average on Earth's surface, more than twice the mission requirement.

An hour after receiving the last transmission from the probe, at a point about 200,000 kilometers (130,000 miles) above the planet, the Galileo spacecraft fired its main engine to brake into orbit around Jupiter.

This first orbit lasted about seven months. Galileo fired its thrusters at its farthest point in the orbit to keep it from coming so close to the giant planet on later orbits. This adjustment helped mitigate possible damage to spacecraft sensors and computer chips from Jupiter's intense radiation environment.

During this first orbit, new software was installed which gave the orbiter extensive new onboard data processing capabilities. It permitted data compression, enabling the spacecraft to transmit up to 10 times the number of pictures and other measurements that would have been possible otherwise.

In addition, hardware changes on the ground and adjustments to the spacecraft-to- Earth communication system increased the average telemetry rate tenfold. Although the problem with the high-gain antenna prevented some of the mission's original objectives from being met, the great majority were. So many new objectives were achieved that scientists feel Galileo has produced considerably more science than ever envisioned at the project's start 20 years ago. Orbital Tour During its primary mission orbital tour, Galileo's itinerary included four flybys of Jupiter's moon Ganymede, three of Callisto and three of Europa. These encounters were about 100 to 1,000 times closer than those performed by NASA's Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft during their Jupiter flybys in 1979. Galileo's instruments scanned and scrutinized the surface and features of each moon. After about a week of intensive observation, with its tape recorder full of data, the spacecraft spent the next one to two months-until the next encounter in orbital "cruise"-playing back the information in transmissions to Earth.

Extended missions
A two-year extension, the Galileo Europa Mission, began in December 1997 and included intensive study of Europa through eight consecutive close encounters. The flybys added to knowledge about Europa's frozen surface and the intriguing prospect that liquid oceans may lie underneath. The Galileo Europa Mission provided a valuable opportunity to make additional flybys' of the volcanic moon Io. The prime mission provided only one opportunity for close-up study of Io. Galileo had two encounters of Io during the Europa Mission, gathering new information on Io's volcanic activity. In addition, Galileo studied Callisto in four flybys. The Galileo Millennium Mission added another year of operations, including more flybys of Io and Ganymede, plus joint studies with the Cassini spacecraft as it passed Jupiter in December 2000 for a gravity assist toward Saturn.

Goodbye Galileo
Timeline - Times and descriptions of Galileo's descent into Jupiter.

Entry preview - Story on Galileo's demise.

Spacecraft - A technical review of the Galileo spacecraft.

Top 10 - Chart of the leading science achievements by Galileo mission.

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