Friday, September 19, 2003

(CNN) -- A resilient robot ship that has explored Jupiter and its moons for eight years will dive into the crushing atmosphere of the giant planet Sunday, a spectacular finale to one of the most productive deep-space missions ever.

Galileo, its propellant running low and its electrical systems on the blink, will nonetheless keep a handful of its 10 instruments on during the final hours, giving scientists a chance to squeeze some final data from the $1.4 billion mission.

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 largest moons, considered some of the most promising sites to search for life beyond Earth.

"Galileo is one of the most successful outer worlds missions that the Earth has ever launched," said Colleen Hartman, NASA's director of solar system exploration. "This spacecraft has given us some unbelievable discoveries."

Since its launch in 1989, the droid has managed to do quite a bit with a computer brain comparable to that of an Apple II.

Both cool and sad. Sad that something so successful is coming to an end, and cool that it gets to end with a mach-whatever explosion in Jupiter's upper atmosphere. Few mechanical critters get a chance to go out with such a bang.

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