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Galileo's send-off

An upcoming mission to Jupiter should include a piece of the famous astronomer.

At an aerospace facility in Denver, Colorado, engineers are busy attaching scientific instruments to NASA's next mission to Jupiter, which is set for launch in less than a year. But team members on the billion-dollar Juno mission are quietly talking about slipping something extra onto the spacecraft — a tiny fragment of bone from Galileo Galilei.

The idea of sending a piece of the famed astronomer to orbit the giant planet, in the company of the moons that he discovered, has charmed some of the US participants in the mission. Officials at the Italian Space Agency, which is providing two instruments, seem to be less enthusiastic. But the plan should move forward.

The wariness on the Italian side is understandable. Galileo died in 1642, still under house arrest for his heretical views, and his burial place lay hidden until 1737, when civil authorities moved him to a prominent spot in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, Italy. Since then, the Franciscan order that runs the church has done its best to protect his remains. A 2008 proposal to exhume the body for genetic tests met with fierce opposition from the church's rector, who described such high-profile scientific efforts as resembling “a carnival”.

Yet Galileo has never been wholly at rest. During the reburial, attending naturalist Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti pried off the thumb and forefinger of Galileo's right hand for posterity; earlier this year, the bones went on display at a museum a few blocks from Santa Croce. And one of the astronomer's vertebrae is held by the University of Padua, where he once taught.

A sliver of bone seems a modest sacrifice for a gesture that would remind the public that science is a human endeavour.

Compared with these disruptions of Galileo's eternal slumber, a sliver of bone seems a modest sacrifice for a gesture that would add emotional energy to the mission and remind the public that science is fundamentally a human endeavour.

Galileo himself understood the need to connect science with society, and he was politically astute enough to see the value of showmanship. It was no coincidence that he named the four biggest moons of Jupiter the 'Medicean stars' after his patrons, and accompanied his announcement of their discovery with a gift of an almost priceless telescope to Cosimo II de' Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Galileo might have tolerated a little post-mortem exploitation in the interests of public support.

But there is another reason to think that Galileo would have approved. He was enthralled by the Universe revealed through his telescope. “It is a very beautiful thing, and most gratifying to the sight, to behold the body of the moon, distant from us almost sixty earthly radii, as if it were no farther away than two such measures,” he wrote of the lunar surface in his 1610 treatise The Starry Messenger. The Juno mission will skim just 4,800 kilometres above Jupiter, a body that held no less fascination for Galileo. He just might enjoy a closer look.

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Galileo's send-off. Nature 468, 6 (2010).

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