$1.4 billion spacecraft collected data almost until its demise
(CNN)—A daring robotic explorer that circled Jupiter and its moons for eight years plunged into the scorching atmosphere of the giant planet Sunday—a fiery end to one of the most productive space missions ever.
NASA charted the collision course to prevent Galileo, a heap of metal, plutonium and gadgets the size of a sport utility vehicle, from striking Jupiter's larger moons, considered some of the most promising sites to search for life beyond Earth.
Its propellant running low and its electrical systems on the blink, Galileo nonetheless kept a handful of instruments on during the final hours, giving scientists a chance to squeeze some final observations about Jupiter's upper atmosphere from the $1.4 billion mission.
"We're still collecting scientific data. I'm really surprised we haven't gone into emergency mode," Galileo project manager Claudia Alexander said an hour or so before impact. "This time last November, we were passing through this same zone, and we got clobbered."
The craft went silent just before 4 p.m. EDT, having slipped behind the far side of Jupiter. Minutes later, it presumably screamed across the cloud tops on the night side of the planet, just south of the equator, speeding at more than 100,000 mph.
The searing heat in the upper atmosphere, twice that of the surface of the sun, and the crushing pressure, which within minutes was more than 20 times that at Earth's sea level, likely vaporized the robot ship, according to astronomers.
The sacrificial death ended an expedition that spanned 14 years and almost 3 billion miles.
Since it left Earth in 1989, Galileo has managed to do quite a bit with a computer brain comparable to that of an Apple II.