Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Addio, Galileo:

Since October 18 of 1989, when it was launched on the shuttle Atlantis during STS-34, the Galileo probe has been hard at work in space. After a seven-year voyage to Jupiter, it was to carry out a two year long survey of the planet and its myriad moons. Amazingly, the probe actually endured radiation and collisions with debris, returning scientific data five years past its designed lifespan.

JPL controllers used up the last of the propellant onboard to put Galileo on an orbit that will take it into the atmosphere of Jupiter on September 21, where it will burn up, returning data even as it melts into oblivion.

Just as with the probes to Mars and the amazing Pioneer and Voyager missions, we tend to personify these machines, and feel some sense of loss when they finally fail. It always brings a tear to my eye to think of the probes that automatically searched for signals from Earth after contact was lost -- vainly listening with their little electronic dishes to the wrong part of the sky after we mistakenly over-wrote part of their programming with a mistaken command until their power supplies wore down or a part failed and they got stuck... sniffle.

As the IKEA man would say, in the Cannes-prize-winning advert Spike Jonz produced about a lamp left out in the rain on a garbage pile: "Many of you feel bad for this spacecraft. That is because you are crazy. It has no feelings. And the new one is much better."

Except, of course, Congress has totally mucked up the schedule for the much better new one.