Pioneer 10 crosses the orbit of Neptune, June 13, 1983
Launched on March 2, 1972, Pioneer 10 was not only the first spacecraft to cross Neptune's orbit on a course to leave our solar system, it was the first to use all-nuclear electrical power, to fly beyond Mars, to fly through the asteroid belt, and the first to fly close to Jupiter.
NASA received significant data from Pioneer 10, including data that allowed scientists to identify plasma in Jupiter's magnetic field. See a NASA diagram of Pioneer 10's systems below.
Pioneer 10 was the farthest human-made object in existence until February 17, 1998, when Voyager 1 exceeded its range. The spacecraft is presumably on its course for the red star Aldebaran, which forms the eye of the Taurus constellation, but NASA officially terminated routine contact with the vehicle on March 31, 1997 for budgetary reasons. The agency estimates it will arrive at the red star Aldebaran in approximately two million years.
Intermittent contact continued with collection of data from the Geiger tube telescope and the charged-particle instrument, but the spacecraft’s signal was last detected on January 22, 2003. NASA engineers believe the radioisotope power source has decayed, preventing it from sending transmissions to Earth.
Should Pioneer 10 ever interact with alien life, a plaque with information about Earth and humans is on board.
- Pioneer 0 moon orbiter explodes, August 17, 1958
- Voyager 1 makes closest approach to Jupiter, March 5 1979
- Slideshow: NASA’s Deep Space Network
- NASA: Revealing the unknown to benefit all humankind
For more moments in tech history, see this blog. EDN strives to be historically accurate with these postings. Should you see an error, please notify us.
Editor's note: This article was originally posted on June 13, 2012, and edited on June 13, 2017.