After more than 30 years and 7.4 billion miles traveled, engineers at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California were finally unable to receive a transmission from Pioneer 10 on January 23, 2003. The first spacecraft to leave the solar system, the probe served well beyond its initial mission term of 21 months.
When introduced in the 1960s, the concept of an interplanetary study was on the fringes of the mission profile the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was looking for. Driven by President of the United States John F. Kennedy’s proclamation that American feet would be on the moon by the end of the decade, workers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) were more focused on the rockets which would one day put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface.
Engineer Gary Flandro, given the task of figuring out what it would take to learn more about the outer planets of the solar system, realized an exceedingly rare alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto was set to occur in the late 1970s. Considering scientists would have to wait an additional 175 years for another opportunity, Flandro proposed what is known as the Planetary Grand Tour. Designed to use each successive planet’s gravitational pull as a slingshot for the journey to the next target, Flandro believed tests were in order to determine how well the theory might work.
By late 1964, NASA officials had a proposal featuring two small “Galactic Jupiter Probes” in place, minimizing cost by planning the missions to take advantage of favorable launch conditions to shrink the amount of fuel necessary for rockets to escape Earth’s gravity. With a plan to brush past Mars and through the asteroid belt, let alone make a close pass at Jupiter, Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 — precursors to the larger Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 Flandro envisioned — were certain to be record breakers.
Loaded with a host of instruments for the observation of diverse phenomena and the transmission of information, Pioneer 10 left the platform at Cape Canaveral in Florida during the late hours of March 2, 1972. Within a few months, the probe reached the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, safely exiting in mid-February 1973. The following November, it was nearing Jupiter for a 60-day flyby, coming within 81,000 miles of the surface before moving on January 1, 1974.
From then on, everything Pioneer 10 managed to capture was a bonus. Engineers reaped loads of data from its pass near Saturn in 1976 and Uranus three years later. Sweeping past Neptune in 1983, Pioneer 10 became the first manmade object to leave the solar system. Up until March 1997, when officials decided to end active measurement, the craft continued to send information back to engineers at NASA.
Though it would eventually be overtaken by the fast-moving Voyager 1 as the furthest manmade object from the sun in 1998, scientists at the JPL were able to discern the direction and speed of Pioneer 10 until late April 2002. With its transmission signal continuing to weaken — partially because the distance from the sun prevented the solar panels from gathering much energy — engineers were unable to receive any signal from Pioneer 10 on January 23, 2003.
In a press release at the time, project manager Larry Lasher said, “Pioneer 10 lasted more than 30 years. It was a workhorse that far exceeded its warranty, and I guess you could say we got our money’s worth.” In some way, each of the five deep space probes launched since are all descendants of Pioneer 10.
Now more than 10 billion miles from Earth, NASA engineers believe the spacecraft is now on target for the star Aldebaran, the eye of the Taurus constellation. More than 2 million years from now, it will reach the distant solar system as an emissary, bearing a single gold plate with images of humans and symbols indicating where Pioneer 10 originated, should intelligent life find it.
Also On This Day:
1556 – As many as 830,000 people are killed by an earthquake in Shaanxi, China
1719 – The Principality of Liechtenstein, now the 6th smallest nation on Earth, is created in the Holy Roman Empire
1897 – Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose is born in Cuttack
1950 – The Knesset, the single-house legislature of Israel, designates Jerusalem as the capital
1973 – President of the United States Richard Nixon announces a peace accord with Vietnam
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January 23 1973 – President of the United States Richard Nixon announces a peace accord with Vietnam