IT COULDN'T LAST FOREVER. IN FACT, it was supposed to have ended a long time ago. Galileo, the first spacecraft to orbit any of the large planets beyond Mars, may have been the most delayed mission in NASA’s history. It was originally scheduled to launch in 1982, reach Jupiter three years later, and wrap up by 1987. But a series of setbacks with the space shuttle and Galileo’s attached booster rocket pushed the launch to 1989 and arrival to 1995.
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Although the looping tour through the Jovian system was planned to end two years later, Galileo’s mission was extended twice so scientists could get closer pictures of Europa, with its iced-over ocean, and the other large satellites: Io, Ganymede, and Callisto. Now at last, the end is near. In September 2003, with hardly any maneuvering fuel left, Galileo will end its last orbit with a plunge into Jupiter’s atmosphere.
Browse through Galileo's images in the photo gallery at right.