PASADENA, Calif. (AP) _ Hundreds of scientists and engineers gathered to pay their last respects to the Galileo spacecraft as NASA's aging explorer self-destructed in Jupiter's turbulent atmosphere.

The unmanned spacecraft, traveling at nearly 108,000 mph, was torn apart in a plunge into the planet's atmosphere at 2:57 p.m. EDT Sunday, ending its 14-year, $1.5 billion exploration of Jupiter and its moons.

``We haven't lost a spacecraft, we've gained a new stepping stone in exploration,'' said Torrence Johnson, the mission's project scientist, who watched the end of Galileo's 2.8 billion-mile journey from Earth at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Another scientist on the mission, Rosaly Lopes, called Galileo's fiery descent ``a spectacular end to a spectacular mission.''

``Personally, I am a little sad,'' Lopes said. ``I had the time of my life on Galileo and I'm a little sad to say goodbye to an old friend.''

NASA opted to crash the 3,000-pound Galileo, whose onboard store of fuel was soon to be depleted, in order to avoid the possibility it would crash into the watery moon Europa and contaminate it with any microbes harbored aboard the spacecraft. Were Earth bugs to survive on Europa, they could compromise future attempts to probe the moon for indigenous life.

Galileo is the first planetary spacecraft NASA has intentionally destroyed since it steered the Lunar Prospector into the Earth's moon in 1999.

Despite being plagued by glitches, Galileo was one of NASA's most fruitful missions, discovering the first moon of an asteroid, witnessing the impact of a comet into Jupiter and providing firm evidence of salty oceans on three of the planet's moons. Scientists consider one of the three, Europa, the most likely place in the solar system to harbor extraterrestrial life.

Among the most stunning of the 14,000 images returned by Galileo were those of the moon Io. Galileo caught some of the moon's more than 150 volcanoes actively spewing lava and plumes of dust and gas.

The last of Galileo's science measurements arrived on Earth after the spacecraft was destroyed Sunday, taking 52 minutes to cross half a billion miles of space at the speed of light.

``I just can't believe the spacecraft collected data all the way in,'' said a tearful Claudia Alexander, Galileo's seventh and last project manager.

The spacecraft was named for Galileo Galilei, the Italian astronomer who discovered Jupiter's four largest moons in 1610 and whose understanding of the mechanics of the solar system sometimes ran afoul of Vatican orthodoxy.

``Remember, he wanted the truth, whatever it was,'' said Jim Erickson, a former Galileo project manager. ``And we provided it.''

___

On the Net: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov