IT MUST BE lonely out there, by Jupiter. For nearly eight years now, a plucky little spaceship that weighs no more than a small car has been doing its rounds in the lee of the largest planet. It took the craft six years before that just to get out there. Fourteen years of service altogether -- longer than a lot of Chevrolets manage -- without a tune-up, a valve job or even a refueling.
Today it ends, as Galileo streaks toward a fiery death in the Jovian atmosphere, at a sprightly 108,000 miles an hour.
Galileo gave the world more than its designers envisioned or its managers dared to hope for. Snakebit from the beginning, it nevertheless succeeded in getting up close and personal with an asteroid, watched as Comet Shoemaker-Levy walloped into Jupiter, offered new insight into the incredible volcanic Jovian moon, Io, and -- best of all -- provided the observations that have led scientists to believe that another moon, Europa, has a 30-mile-deep ocean sloshing around beneath a thick layer of ice.
Galileo succeeded brilliantly even though it was packing modest 1980s computer technology, and was subject to more radiation in the environs of Jupiter than any creature -- mechanical or otherwise -- could be expected to endure. Yet its biggest triumph has been in overcoming a problem that developed not in the inhospitable reaches of outer space, but somewhere on the highway between Florida and California.
That's because, as the plans for Galileo kept changing before it could even get to the launching pad, the little spacecraft was trucked more than once across the continent. The jostling took the blame after Galileo finally went off into space in 1989 and NASA discovered that its big folding communications antenna wouldn't unfold. In the end, engineers managed a complete, remote overhaul of Galileo's software, and the mission continued with a small standby antenna filling in.
The Galileo project, at a cost of just $1.5 billion, is a testament to perseverance and ingenuity. No wonder its Earth-based crew is sad to see it go. But they chose to consign Galileo to the flames of Jupiter rather than risk a biological contamination of Europa, where life might just exist. It'll be up to new Galileos to go there one day and find out.