On June 13, 1983, Pioneer 10 became the first spacecraft to pass beyond the orbit of Neptune. So, it is the first spacecraft to pass beyond all the solar system planets.

Today’s (June 13) story of what happened this day in Science, Technology, Astronomy, and Space Exploration history.

Pioneer 10 also became the first spacecraft to pass beyond all the planets of the Solar System. Pluto was considered a planet at that time, but that’s not the reason that it passed beyond all the solar system planets.

Pluto is usually farthest from the Sun. However, its orbit “crosses” inside of Neptune’s orbit for 20 years out of every 248 years. Pluto last crossed inside Neptune’s orbit on February 7, 1979, and temporarily became the 8th planet from the Sun. Pluto would cross back over Neptune’s orbit again on February 11, 1999, to resume its place as the 9th planet from the Sun for the next 228 years (well, maybe until it was declared not a planet anymore in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union – it is now a dwarf planet).

Pioneer 10

Pioneer 10
Artist’s concept of a Pioneer spacecraft going into deep space (Pioneer 10 and 11 were identical, except that a Flux-Gate Magnetometer was added on Pioneer 11). Image: NASA

Pioneer 10 was launched on March 3, 1972. Between July 15, 1972, and February 15, 1973, it became the first spacecraft to travel through the asteroid belt.

It is the first artificial object to achieve the escape velocity that will allow it to leave the Solar System. It is also the first spacecraft to make direct observations and obtain close-up images of Jupiter. Photography of the gas giant began on November 6, 1973, at a range of about 25 million kilometers (16 million miles), and about 500 images of Jupiter and its moons were transmitted.

Pioneer 10 made its closest encounter with Jupiter on 3 December 1973, passing within 132,252 kilometers (82,178 miles) of the cloud tops.

It also took measurements of Jupiter’s magnetosphere, radiation belts, magnetic field, atmosphere, and interior. With the data provided, it was discovered that Jupiter is predominantly a liquid planet. These measurements of the intense radiation environment near Jupiter were crucial in designing the Voyager and Galileo spacecraft.

Artist's impression of Pioneer 10's flyby of Jupiter
Artist’s impression of Pioneer 10’s flyby of Jupiter. Image: Wikipedia Pioneer 10 was launched on March 2, 1972. It was the first spacecraft to make direct observations and obtain close-up images of Jupiter, and by the time it reached its target, it had been traveling through space for 21 months, traversing regions of the solar system never before explored by human-made robots. It made its closest approach to the gas giant on December 3, 1973, passing within 132,252 kilometers (82,178 miles – about one-third of the distance between the Earth and the moon) of the cloud tops. Thereafter, Pioneer 10 became the first spacecraft to travel through the Asteroid belt, and also the first artificial object to achieve the escape velocity that will allow it to leave the Solar System.

Pioneer 10’s science mission ended on March 31, 1997. So, originally designed to operate in space for at least 6 months, the Pioneers proved to be remarkably reliable, far surpassing their original mission durations.

After more than 30 years, Pioneer 10’s last, very weak signal was received on January 23, 2003. NASA engineers report that the space probe’s radioisotope power source has decayed, and it may not have enough power to send additional transmissions to Earth.

Photograph of Jupiter by Pioneer 10 spacecraft
Photograph of Jupiter by Pioneer 10 spacecraft at a range of 2,584,000 km (1,605,623 miles). Photo: NASA Ames Research Center Photo Library.
Jupiter red spot from Pioneer 10
Photograph taken by Pioneer 10 spacecraft, managed by the NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California. Jupiter’s Red Spot and a shadow of the Moon, Io, are seen in this image taken at a range of 2,527,063 km (1,570,244 miles). This photo has been enhanced from the raw data received from the spacecraft. Photo: NASA Ames Research Center Photo Library.

Where is Pioneer 10 now?

Pioneer 10 will continue its eternal journey silently as a ghost spaceship through deep space into interstellar space. Now, it is heading generally for the red star Aldebaran, which forms the eye of Taurus (The Bull) in the Earth’s sky.

Aldebaran is about 68 light-years away and it will take Pioneer over 2 million years to reach it.

Pioneer plaque

Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 carry a 152 by 229 millimeters (6.0 by 9.0 inches) gold-anodized aluminum plaque in case either spacecraft is ever found by intelligent extraterrestrial life-forms. These plaques were strongly advocated by Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934 – December 20, 1996) the American astronomer and the pioneer of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Sagan was very enthusiastic about the idea of sending a message with the Pioneer spacecraft.

NASA agreed to the plan and gave him three weeks to prepare a message. He designed the plaque with Frank Drake (May 28, 1930 – September 2, 2022, the American astronomer and astrophysicist), and the artwork was prepared by Linda Salzman Sagan, who was Sagan’s wife at the time.

Pioneer plaque
NASA image of Pioneer 10’s famed Pioneer plaque features a design engraved into a gold-anodized aluminum plate, 152 by 229 millimeters (6 by 9 inches), attached to the spacecraft’s antenna support struts to help shield it from erosion by interstellar dust. This version has had the tilt of the photograph fixed and the scan was cleaned. Designed by Carl Sagan and Frank Drake (born May 28, 1930), the American astronomer and astrophysicist, the developer of the Drake equation, a probabilistic argument used to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy. Artwork prepared by Linda Salzman Sagan. Photograph by NASA Ames Research Center (NASA-ARC) – Ames Pioneer 10.

The plaques feature the figures of a human male and female along with several symbols that are designed to provide information about the origin of the spacecraft. They show the Sun and the planets, and how Pioneers 10 and 11 traveled through the planets of the solar system to eventually enter interstellar space.

Sources

M. Özgür Nevres
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