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Galileo mission graphic


Phase: Past

Launch Date: October 18, 1989

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Program(s):Outer Planets Flagship

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The Galileo mission consists of two spacecraft: an orbiter and an atmospheric probe. Launched during the STS 34 flight of the Atlantis orbiter, the two spacecraft were kicked out of Earth orbit by an inertial upper stage (IUS) rocket, sending them careening through the inner solar system. The trajectory which the spacecraft followed was called a VEEGA (Venus-Earth-Earth Gravity Assist), traveling first in toward the Sun for a gravity assist from Venus before encountering the Earth two times (spaced two years apart). These encounters with Venus and the Earth allowed Galileo to gain enough velocity to get it out to Jupiter.

Icy Surface of Europa
Icy moon Europa
Reddish spots and shallow pits pepper the enigmatic ridged surface of Europa in this view combining information from images taken by NASA's Galileo spacecraft during two different orbits around Jupiter.
The spots and pits visible in this region of Europa's northern hemisphere are each about 10 kilometers (6 miles) across. The dark spots are called "lenticulae," the Latin term for freckles. Their similar sizes and spacing suggest that Europa's icy shell may be churning away like a lava lamp, with warmer ice moving upward from the bottom of the ice shell while colder ice near the surface sinks downward. Other evidence has shown that Europa likely has a deep melted ocean under its icy shell. Ruddy ice erupting onto the surface to form the lenticulae may hold clues to the composition of the ocean and to whether it could support life.
The image combines higher-resolution information obtained when Galileo flew near Europa on May 31, 1998, during the spacecraft's 15th orbit of Jupiter, with lower-resolution color information obtained on June 28, 1996, during Galileo's first orbit. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/University of Colorado

During the flybys of Venus and the Earth, Galileo scientists took the opportunity to study these two planets as well as the Moon, making some unprecedented observations as a result. In addition, following each Earth flyby, Galileo made excursions as far out in the solar system as the asteroid belt, enabling scientists to make the first close-up studies of two asteroids, Gaspra and Ida. As is this were not sufficient, Galileo scientists were fortunate to be the only ones with a direct view of the Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 fragment impacts on Jupiter. All of this was prior to the primary missions of sending an atmospheric probe into Jupiter's atmosphere and studying Jupiter, its satellites, and its magnetosphere for two years with the orbiter.

The flight team for Galileo ceased operations on February 28, 2003 and Galileo coasted, unattended, before transmitting a few hours of science measurements during its 2003 September 21 plunge into Jupiter's atmosphere.