March 2 is Pioneer 10’s 50th anniversary

Pioneer 10's 50th anniversary: Somewhat hazy image of Jupiter, with black dot in front.
Pioneer 10 image of Jupiter from 1973. The black dot is the shadow of one of Jupiter’s moons. Image via NASA.

Pioneer 10’s 50th anniversary

NASA launched its Pioneer 10 spacecraft 50 years ago today on March 2, 1972. It’s hard to describe how exciting that day was. It was NASA’s first mission to the outer planets! The craft’s main mission was to fly past Jupiter, which it did, coming closest on December 4, 1973. It survived the intense radiation that surrounds the giant planet and then continued on a trajectory that would take it out of our solar system. It crossed in the orbit of Saturn in 1976 and the orbit of Neptune in 1983. And today – although contact with the craft has been terminated – Pioneer 10 is still heading outward.

Pioneer 11 (launched one year later in 1973) visited both Jupiter and Saturn. Each returned a wealth of data and images that helped us understand our solar system better. NASA’s Pioneer mission page isn’t exaggerating when it claims:

Pioneer 10 … was a spectacular success and the spacecraft notched a series of firsts unmatched by any other robotic spacecraft to date.

Pioneer 10 firsts included:

– First spacecraft placed on a trajectory to escape the solar system into interstellar space
– First spacecraft to fly beyond Mars
– First spacecraft to fly through the main asteroid belt
– First spacecraft to fly past Jupiter
– Crossed the orbit of Neptune to become the first human-made object to go beyond Neptune
– First spacecraft to use all-nuclear electrical power

Originally designed for a 21-month mission to fly by Jupiter, Pioneer 10 lasted more than 30 years.

Pioneer 10 sent its last signal to Earth in January 2003 from a distance of 7.6 billion miles (12.23 billion km).

Happy anniversary, Pioneer 10!

A spacecraft with a round shape, two legs and a long antenna, moves aways from a big amount of stars and a cloudy ring.
Artist’s concept shows Pioneer 10 as it leaves the solar system. Pioneer 10 relayed its last, weak message to Earth on January 22, 2003. Today is the 50th anniversary of its launch. Image via NASA.

Bottom line: March 2, 2022, is Pioneer 10’s 50th anniversary. The spacecraft launched on March 2, 1972, and went on to become a true pioneer in space exploration.

March 2, 2022

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Deborah Byrd

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