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Pioneer 10

By Marty McDowell/NASA

On March 2, 1972, the United States launched Pioneer 10. This was the first spacecraft to ever do a flyby of Jupiter and the first to leave the solar system. Pioneer 10 was the first spacecraft to travel through the Asteroid belt, and the first spacecraft to make direct observations and obtain close-up images of Jupiter. The spacecraft made valuable scientific investigations in the outer regions of our solar system until the end of its mission on March 31 1997. A plaque was added to each spacecraft in case aliens encounter the craft.

Pioneer 10 was launched on March 2, 1972 on top of an Atlas/Centaur/TE364-4 launch vehicle. The launch marked the first use of the Atlas-Centaur as a three-stage launch vehicle. The third stage was required to rocket Pioneer 10 to the speed of 51,810 kilometers per hour (32,400 mph) needed for the flight to Jupiter. This made Pioneer the fastest manmade object to leave the Earth, fast enough to pass the Moon in 11 hours and to cross the Mars orbit, about 80 million kilometers (50 million miles) away, in just 12 weeks.

On July 15, 1972 Pioneer 10 entered the Asteroid Belt, a doughnut shaped area which measures some 280 million kilometers wide and 80 million kilometers thick. The material in the belts travels at speed about 20 km/sec. and ranges in size from dust particles to rock chunks as big as Alaska.


Pioneer 10 snagged this shot of Jupiter in December, 1973.

Image courtesy of NASA.


After safely traversing the Asteroid Belt, Pioneer 10 headed toward Jupiter. Accelerated by the massive giant to a speed of 132,000 km/hr (82,000 mph), Pioneer 10 passed by Jupiter within 130,354 km (81,000 miles) of the cloudtops on December 3, 1973. During the passage by Jupiter, Pioneer 10 obtained the first close-up images of the planet, charted Jupiter's intense radiation belts, located the planet's magnetic field, and discovered that Jupiter is predominantly a liquid planet.

Where Are They Now?

After more than 30 years, the venerable Pioneer 10 spacecraft has sent its last signal to Earth. Pioneer's last, very weak signal was received on January 23, 2003. NASA engineers reported Pioneer 10's radioisotope power source has decayed, and it may not have enough power to send additional transmissions to Earth. NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) did not detect a signal during the last contact attempt on 7 February 2003. The previous three contacts, including the 23 January signal, were very faint, with no telemetry received. The last time a Pioneer 10 contact returned telemetry data was 27 April 2002. NASA has no additional contact attempts planned for Pioneer 10.

Pioneer 10 is now nearly eight billion miles from Earth (as of September 1, 2003) and continues to provide data for research even in its final days. Pioneer 10 will continue into interstellar space, heading generally for the red star Aldebaran, which forms the eye of Taurus (The Bull). Aldebaran is about 68 light years away and it will take Pioneer over 2 million years to reach it. Pioneer 10 will be in galactic orbit for billions of years. It is moving in a straight line away from the Sun at a constant velocity of about 12 km/sec. Until Pioneer 10 reaches a distance of about 1.5 parsec (309,000 AUs) - about 126,000 years from now - it will be dominated by the gravitational field of the Sun. After that Pioneer 10 will be on an orbital path in the Milky Way galaxy influenced by the field of the stars that it passes.

Source: NASA.


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Space References (Books):
Dickinson, Terence. Nightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe. Firefly Books, 1998.
Greene, Brian. Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. Vintage, 2000.
Hawking, Stephen. Illustrated Brief History of Time, Updated and Expanded Edition. Bantam, 1996.
Hawking, Stephen. Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe. New Millenium, 2002.
Hawking, Stephen. The Universe in a Nutshell. Bantam, 2001.
Kaku, Michio. Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps and the Tenth Dimension.
Kranz, Gene. Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. Berkley Pub Group, 2001.
Sagan, Carl; Druyan, Ann. Comet, Revised Edition. Ballantine, 1997
Sagan, Carl. Cosmos, Reissue Edition. Ballantine, 1993
Sagan, Carl. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Ballantine, 1997

Space References (Videos):
Cosmos. PBS, 2000.
Stephen Hawking's Universe. PBS, 1997.
Hyperspace. BBC, 2002.
Life Beyond Earth PBS, 1999.
The Planets
. BBC, 1999.
Understanding The Universe. A&E, 1996.



Pioneer 10 spacecraft

Courtesy of NASA

Launched: March 2, 1972

Destination: Jupiter

Arrival: December 5, 1973


Nation: U.S.

Mission: Flyby of Jupiter

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