PIONEER 10 SPACECRAFT SENDS LAST SIGNAL After more than 30 years, it appears the venerable Pioneer 10 spacecraft has sent its last signal to Earth. Pioneer's last, very weak signal was received on 23 January 2003. NASA engineers report that 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.
Launched on 2 March 1972, 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. Famed as the most remote object ever made by man through most of its mission, Pioneer 10 is now over 8 billion miles away. (On 17 February 1998, Voyager 1's heliocentric radial distance equaled Pioneer 10 at 69.4 AU and thereafter exceeded Pioneer 10 at the rate of 1.02 AU per year.)
Pioneer 10 made its closest encounter to Jupiter some thirty years ago on 3 December 1973, passing within 81,000 miles of the cloudtops. This historic event marked humans' first approach to Jupiter and opened the way for exploration of the outer solar system - for Voyager to tour the outer planets, for Ulysses to break out of the ecliptic, for Galileo to investigate Jupiter and its satellites, and for Cassini to go to Saturn and probe Titan. During its Jupiter encounter, Pioneer 10 imaged the planet and its moons, and took measurements of Jupiter's magnetosphere, radiation belts, magnetic field, atmosphere, and interior. These measurements of the intense radiation environment near Jupiter were crucial in designing the Voyager and Galileo spacecraft.
Pioneer 10 made valuable scientific investigations in the outer regions of our solar system until the end of its science mission on 31 March 1997. The Pioneer 10 weak signal continued to be tracked by the DSN as part of an advanced concept study of communication technology in support of NASA's future interstellar probe mission. The power source on Pioneer 10 finally degraded to the point where the signal to Earth dropped below the threshold for detection in its latest contact attempt on 7 February, 2003. Pioneer 10 will continue to coast silently as a ghost ship through deep space 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 was featured on the Star Date radio broadcast by the University of Texas McDonald Observatory on 2 March 2002 - the 30th anniversary of its launch.
Hear Pioneer Speaks
Launched on 5 April 1973, Pioneer 11 followed its sister ship to Jupiter (1974), made the first direct observations of Saturn (1979) and studied energetic particles in the outer heliosphere. The Pioneer 11 Mission ended on 30 September 1995, when the last transmission from the spacecraft was received. There have been no communications with Pioneer 11 since. The Earth's motion has carried it out of the view of the spacecraft antenna. The spacecraft cannot be maneuvered to point back at the Earth. It is not known whether the spacecraft is still transmitting a signal. No further tracks of Pioneer 11 are scheduled. The spacecraft is headed toward the constellation of Aquila (The Eagle), Northwest of the constellation of Sagittarius. Pioneer 11 will pass near one of the stars in the constellation in about 4 million years.
For additional information on Pioneer 10 & 11, and the current status of the missions, look at:
Descriptions of Pioneer 10 and 11 science instruments and science data sets are available for the following:
The Pioneer 10 & 11 Spacecraft Missions are two of a series of eight spacecraft missions managed by the Pioneer Project Office at NASA, Ames Research Center. A description of the mission is contained in the on-line version of Pioneer Odyssey
The following is a brief description of the other Pioneer Missions.
Pioneers 6-9 were launched into Solar orbit between 1965 and 1968. Their prime mission completed years ago, the spacecraft were then tracked only occasionally.
Pioneer 6 was launched on 16 December 1965. Some time after 15 December 1995 (almost 30 years after it was launched) the primary transmitter (TWT) failed. During a track on 11 July 1996 the spacecraft was commanded to switch to the backup TWT, and the downlink signal was re-acquired. The spacecraft and a few of the science instruments were again functioning.
Pioneer 6 was featured on the Star Date radio broadcast by the University of Texas McDonald Observatory on 16 December 2000 - the 35th anniversary of its launch. Pioneer 6 is the oldest NASA spacecraft extant. There was a successful contact of Pioneer 6 for about two hours on 8 December 2000 to commemorate its anniversary.
Pioneer 7 was launched on 17 August 1966. It was last tracked successfully on 31 March 1995. The spacecraft and one of the science instruments were still functioning.
Pioneer 8 was launched on 13 December 1967. Its primary TWT failed several years ago, but on 22 August 1996 the spacecraft was commanded to switch to the backup TWT, and the downlink signal was re-acquired. The spacecraft and one of the science instruments were again functioning.
Pioneer 9 was launched on 8 November 1968. The spacecraft failed in 1983.
The Pioneer Venus Orbiter spacecraft was launched on 20 May 1978. It orbited the planet Venus for 14 years until it entered the Venus atmosphere on 8 October 1992 and burned up by entry heating.
The Pioneer Venus Multiprobe spacecraft was launched on 8 August 1978. Three small probes, one large probe, and the spacecraft bus entered the Venus atmosphere on 9 December 1978.
For a description of these Pioneer Missions, see Pioneer History
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