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Our Spaceflight Heritage: Pioneer 10, first to achieve escape velocity from the Solar System

Artist's rendition of Pioneer 10 spacecraft heading into interstellar space. Image Credit: Ames Research Center

On June 13, 1983, Pioneer 10 left the Solar System and began its journey into interstellar space after 30 years of flight. It succeeded as becoming the first spacecraft to survey Jupiter, Pioneer 10 became the first spacecraft to achieve escape velocity from the Solar System.

Pioneer 10 arrives at Kennedy Space Center Photo Credit: NASA

Pioneer 10 on a Star-37E kick motor just prior to being encapsulated for launch.
Photo Credit: NASA

Pioneer 10 was launched atop a three-stage Atlas/Centaur  rocket from Space Launch Complex 36A in Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on March 2, 1972. It was built by TRW Inc., located in Redondo Beach, California.

With the final push of the Atlas rocket’s third stage, Pioneer 10 reached a speed of 32,400 mph – the amount of thrust needed for the flight to Jupiter, making it the fastest human-made object to leave the Earth at that time. It traveled fast enough to pass the Moon in 11 hours and to cross Mars’ orbit, about 50 million miles away, in just 12 weeks. Pioneer 10 passed the asteroid belt on July 15, 1972. Accelerating to a speed of 82,000 mph, the spacecraft flew by Jupiter on December 3, 1973.

Atlas/Centaur Launch with Pioneer 10 onboard. Photo Credit: NASA

Atlas/Centaur Launch with Pioneer 10 aboard.
Photo Credit: NASA

Pioneer 10 was the first spacecraft to make direct observations and obtain close-up images of Jupiter. Pioneer 10 also charted the gas giant’s intense radiation belts, located the planet’s magnetic field, and established that Jupiter is predominantly a liquid planet. In 1983, Pioneer 10 became the first human-made object to pass the orbit of Pluto, the most distant planet (at that time Pluto was still a planet) from the Sun.

Scientific instruments included the following:

• An imaging photopolarimeter which was an experimental instrument that relied upon the spin of the spacecraft to sweep a small telescope across the planet in narrow strips only 0.03 degrees wide, looking at the planet in red and blue light.

• A magnetometer measured the fine structure of the interplanetary magnetic field, mapped the Jovian magnetic field, and provided magnetic field measurements to evaluate solar wind interaction with Jupiter.

• An infrared radiometer provided information on cloud temperature and the output of heat from Jupiter.

• A plasma analyzer peered through a hole in the large dish-shaped antenna to detect particles of the solar wind originating from the Sun.

Pioneer 10's systems.  Photo Credit: JPL/NASA

Pioneer 10′s systems.
Photo Credit: JPL/NASA

• An ultraviolet photometer  where ultraviolet light was sensed to determine the quantities of hydrogen and helium in space and on Jupiter.

• A charged-particle-composition instrument detected cosmic rays in the Solar System.

• A cosmic-ray telescope collected data on the composition of the cosmic ray particles and their energy ranges.

• A Geiger tube telescopes surveyed the intensities, energy spectra, and angular distributions of electrons and protons along the spacecraft’s path through the radiation belts of Jupiter.

• An asteroid/meteoroid detector looked into space with four non-imaging telescopes to track particles ranging from close-by bits of dust to distant large asteroids.

• A Jovian trapped-radiation detector detected the light emitted in a particular direction as particles passed through it recording electrons of energy.

• A meteoroid detector, which was twelve panels of pressurized cell detectors mounted on the back of the main dish antenna recorded penetrating impacts of small meteoroids.

The end of Pioneer 10′s mission was declared by NASA engineers on March 31, 1997, due to its weak signal which was tracked by the Deep Space Network.

After its radioisotope power source decayed, it did not have enough power to send additional transmissions to Earth. The last time a Pioneer 10 contact returned telemetry data was April 27, 2002.

A last contact with the spacecraft was made on January 23, 2003, Pioneer 10 was 7.6 billion miles from Earth, or 82 times the distance between the Sun and the Earth. At that distance, it takes more than 11 hours and 20 minutes for the radio signal, traveling at the speed of light, to reach the Earth.

Originally designed for a 21-month mission, Pioneer 10 lasted for more than 30 years. It will take more than 2 million years for Pioneer 10 to pass Aldebaran, which forms the eye of the constellation Taurus (The Bull), the nearest star on its trajectory. Aldebaran is about 68 light-years away.



Heather Smith's fascination for space exploration – started at the tender age of twelve while she was on a sixth-grade field trip in Kenner, Louisiana, walking through a mock-up of the International Space Station and seeing the “space potty” (her terminology has progressed considerably since that time) – she realized at this point that her future lay in the stars. Smith has come to realize that very few people have noticed how much spaceflight technology has improved their lives. She has since dedicated herself to correcting this problem. Inspired by such classic literature as Anne Frank’s Diary, she has honed her writing skills and has signed on as The Spaceflight Group’s coordinator for the organization’s social media efforts.

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