The Engineer

The Life and Times of Donald F. Simmons

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Pioneer 10 sends last signal

Pioneer 10 was launched on March 2, 1972 and flew past Jupiter on December 3, 1973, the first spacecraft to do so. NASA stayed in contact with it at regular intervals, and the craft continued to make solar wind and cosmic ray observations as it headed out further into space. In 1983 it became the first spacecraft to cross the orbit of Pluto.

Pioneer 10 is powered by a radio-isothermal generator, which converts the heat generated by a quality of plutonium into electricity. As the plutonium decays, the power level drops. NASA had to end scientific observations in 1997, but stayed in contact, partially to test their tracking limitations. The last contact was in January and was extremely weak. Subsequent attempts have failed and NASA doesn't expect to be able to pick it up again.

The spacecraft is now 12.2 billion km from Earth, twice as far as Pluto. Not bad for something designed to work only 21 months.


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