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PASADENA, Calif. (AP) - NASA has extended the mission of the Galileo spacecraft and plans to pair it with the Cassini probe for observations of the planet late this year.
The $1.4 billion Galileo, released by the space shuttle Atlantis in 1989, entered Jupiter's orbit in 1995 on a two-year mission. The spacecraft was given a two-year extension that ended Jan. 31.
In addition to the joint observations with Cassini, Galileo's latest mission includes two flybys of Ganymede and possibly other jovian moons through the end of the year.
``This extended travel ticket enables us to continue studying Jupiter and its fascinating moons,'' Jim Erickson, project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said this week.
The second extended mission, called the Galileo Millennium Mission, will pair the probe with the Cassini spacecraft, which is heading to Saturn in a $3.4 billion program.
Cassini will approach Jupiter this December when it uses the mammoth planet's gravity as a slingshot toward Saturn. The Cassini will observe Jupiter from afar while the Galileo will operate within the planet's radiation belts.
``For the first time ever, two spacecraft will simultaneously explore an outer planet,'' said Dennis Matson of the Cassini project. ``One spacecraft will be inside Jupiter's magnetic envelope, with the other outside where it can observe the powerful solar wind pressing on the envelope.''
The latest extension in the Galileo mission will cost $12 million.
NASA scientists have not yet decided how the probe will conclude its extended mission. The spacecraft may crash into Jupiter or its moon Io as a finale.