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On this date in the history of space exploration… January 23, 2003

The final communication between Earth and the deep space probe, Pioneer 10.

The Pioneer-10 spacecraft delivered to NASA at Cape Kennedy

Pioneer 10 (also known as Pioneer F) was the first spacecraft to achieve escape velocity from Earth’s solar system. The project was managed by the NASA Ames Research Center, and the construction contract for the 258-kilogram robotic space probe was awarded to the TRW Corporation.  The spacecraft was equipped with a 2.74 m parabolic dish high-gain antenna, oriented along the spin axis.  Power was supplied by four radioisotope thermoelectric generators that provided a combined 155 watts of power at the start of the mission.

The launch of Pioneer 10

Pioneer 10 was launched on March 2, 1972, onboard an Atlas-Centaur expendable vehicle, from Cape Canaveral, Florida.   It became the first spacecraft to traverse the asteroid belt.  Imaging of Jupiter commenced on November 6, 1973, at a range of 25 million kilometres, with a total of over 500 images transmitted back to Earth.

An artist's concept of the Pioneer 10 Jupiter encounter

The probe’s closest approach to Jupiter was on December 4, 1973, at a range of 132,252 km.  During the mission, on-board instruments were used to study the asteroid belt, the environment around Jupiter, solar wind, cosmic rays, and the far reaches of the solar system.

Pioneer 10 image of Jupiter showing the Great Red Spot

Communication has been lost since January 23, 2003, due to power constraints of the probe.  At that time, Pioneer 10 was 12 billion kilometres from Earth.

The craft had been in flight for 30 years, ten months and 22 days, when the last signal from the probe was received back on Earth.

An artist's depiction of Pioneer 10 in the outer solar system

Further attempts to contact the spacecraft were unsuccessful.  A final attempt was made on March 4, 2006, the last time the antenna would have been correctly aligned with Earth.  There was no response from Pioneer 10.  NASA decided that the radioisotope thermoelectric generator units had probably fallen below the power threshold needed to operate the transmitter, and no further attempts at contact were made.

The velocity away from the Sun is now 12.2 km/s, which is sufficient to escape the Solar System.  If left undisturbed, Pioneer 10 will join the Voyager Spacecraft and will leave the solar system to wander interstellar space.

Voyage sûr, Pioneer.

(All images are the property of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and are in the public domain.)

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