A KU scientist has spent much of his career awaiting the Galileo Orbiter's arrival at Jupiter.
It has taken the Galileo Orbiter more than six years to reach Jupiter.
But Tom Armstrong, a professor of physics and astronomy at Kansas University, has waited 19 years for the spacecraft to start gathering information about the largest planet in the solar system.
Yet even after Galileo's engine fires Thursday, sending it into a wide orbit of Jupiter, Armstrong, 54, will have to wait at least another four months before he gets his hands on any data from the mission.
"We didn't plan for it to take that long," Armstrong said Tuesday. "It just has."
Armstrong, a 1962 KU graduate who joined the faculty in 1968, is part of a group of researchers in charge of one of Galileo's numerous scientific instruments. The device detects charged particles, which will help Armstrong and other space physicists evaluate Jupiter's intense radiation and its mostly hydrogen and helium atmosphere.
"We really need to nail down what the composition of Jupiter is and how it is structured," Armstrong said.
Armstrong's research group, which includes scientists from Johns Hopkins University, Bell Labs, Boston University and Germany's Max Planck Institute, first proposed their energetic particle detector for the Galileo mission in 1976.
In 1979, NASA selected the project to fly aboard Galileo in a mission then scheduled to launch from a space shuttle in 1983.
The mission was delayed until 1986, and the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle that year delayed the mission again -- Galileo was supposed to launch from the next shuttle mission after Challenger.
Galileo finally left Earth in 1989 aboard the shuttle Atlantis. It passed earth twice and Venus once to get enough speed to make the round-about 2.3 billion-mile journey to Jupiter in six years.
Along the way, Galileo's high-speed antenna jammed. So Armstrong and fellow researchers will have to make due with a trickle of data transmitted through a backup antenna that works about 1,000 times slower than the jammed main antenna.
"There is no certainty in this business at all," Armstrong said. "They try to practice and simulate and do failsafe and study this and study that. But ultimately, things have got to work. When it is time for that big engine to light and fire, it has to do so or the orbit won't be what we need."