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NASA starts the countdown Monday, but it will be up to a federal judge whether space shuttle Atlantis can be launched Thursday with five astronauts who are to dispatch the nuclear-powered Galileo probe to Jupiter.

Anti-nuclear activists have sued to halt the flight, saying that a launch accident could spread radioactive plutonium over densely populated parts of Florida. The space agency says the danger is almost non-existent.Both sides will argue their cases in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., at 10 a.m. Tuesday. Judge Oliver Gasch then will decide whether to grant a temporary restraining order to stop the launch, or to let the countdown proceed. This is the first time anyone has gone to court to stop a NASA launch.

The plutonium argument overshadows the fact that the mission involves the most expensive, most sophisticated unmanned space probe ever built, a vehicle one mission official calls "the Rolls-Royce of spacecraft."

After a six-year outward journey, Galileo, priced at $1.4 billion, is to shoot a probe into Jupiter's atmosphere and then orbit the planet for two years.

Mission planners say its investigation of Jupiter and its moons will be the most scientifically rich that interplanetary exploration has witnessed. The 1979 Voyager views of Jupiter and its satellites were fascinating, but Galileo's images will be 1,000 times clearer, they say.

The countdown is to start at 8 a.m. Monday. If Gasch does not rule quickly, the count will pause at the 11-hour mark, for several days if necessary, awaiting a decision. Several critical steps, including fueling the shuttle, occur after that point.

If Gasch gives the green light, and no other problems arise, Atlantis is scheduled to blast off at 1:29 p.m. Thursday.

The activists vow that if they lose in court, they will physically try to stop the liftoff.

"We are going to attempt to enter the launch area and sit on the launch pad," said Bruce Gagnon, coordinator for the Florida Coalition of Peace and Justice, one of three groups that filed the suit.

Extra security measures have been in force several days, including closing to the public several roads approaching Kennedy Space Center. These roads are normally closed only on launch days.

NASA officials are concerned that Thursday's brief, 10-minute launch window would vanish if protesters penetrate the launch zone with a boat or plane in the count's final minutes.

At issue are Galileo's two generators and their fuel: 48 pounds of radioactive plutonium-238 dioxide.

The activists say that if the space shuttle crashed or exploded, as the Challenger did in 1986, the poisonous plutonium would be released.

NASA has said the "highest probability of launch-area release of plutonium due to a shuttle accident is less than 1 in 2,500 and such a release would have no appreciable adverse effects on the population."