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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Iconic Spacecraft: Pioneer 10

Pioneer 10-11 spacecraft.jpg
Pioneer 10 was the first man-made probe to reach Jupiter and after that, the first probe to move out of the solar system. It is an American-made spacecraft and was the predecessor to the Pioneer 11 and the two Voyager probes. The project was conducted by the NASA Ames Research Institute and was built by TRW. IT was launched on March 3rd 1972 and took the first photographs of Jupiter on November 6th, 1973. During this period, over 500 pictures were taken and its instruments were used to study the asteroid belt, Jupiter's environment, cosmic rays, solar wind, etc. On January 23rd, 2003, radio contact with the probe was lost due to lack of electricity to power its radio transmitter. It was a whopping 12 billion kilometres away from Earth at that point. (Above left): A depiction of Pioneer 10 in deep space. (Above right): The launch of Pioneer 10.


The Pioneer 10 consists of a hexagonal bus that houses some propellant for orienting the probe towards the Earth and 8 of its 11 scientific instruments, which were housed in an aluminium honeycomb covered with mylar and kapton for heat resistance. Orientation was also checked by a star sensor and two Sun sensors. The Pioneer 10 carrier a plaque similar to those of the Voyagers which showed the position of Earth and what humans looked like, were it to be recovered by aliens. (Left): One of the photos of Jupiter taken by Pioneer 10.

The probe was powered by four SNAP-19 radioisotope generators which together provided 155 watts of power. The probe required 100 watts to power all of its systems, and over time, as the plutonium-238 inside the RSG's decayed, some of the system's were shut down to conserve power. (Right): Two of the 4 RTGs mounted on an extension boom.

Currently, the probe is about 106 AU from the Sun, and is travelling at around 26930 km/h. It is travelling 2.5 AU every year and it takes sunlight almost 15 hours to reach it right now. If it does not get intercepted by any celestial body, it will come close to the star Aldebaran and is heading towards the constellation Taurus.

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