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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. _ Wherever you are at 5:04 p.m. EST Thursday, spare a thought for a gallant little metal cone 350 million miles from home, as it descends on a 75-minute suicide mission into the hot, poisonous, cloud-wracked, lightning-streaked hurricanes that swirl across the giant planet Jupiter.
Like a sacrificial victim flung into a fiery pit to appease the father of the gods and win his favor, the 750-pound Galileo probe is going to immolate for science this evening, at the end of a six-year, 2.3 billion-mile journey that cost $1.354 billion.
When the probe plunges into Jupiter, it will be investigating the nearest thing to a star we know, save only the sun. Jupiter's hot, turbulent, gassy surface, ceaselessly streaming with huge storms like liquid marble, has dazzled stargazers for centuries.
Its 14 attendant moons, so large and diverse as to resemble little planets, its plumes of dust and radiation, almost make it a little solar system within the solar system. Its Giant Red Spot, a hurricane that has been visible for three centuries, has transfixed attention like a serpent's eye.
Thursday night, if …