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Artwork showing Pioneer 10 in space.
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Image courtesy NASA

Pioneer 10 falls silent
News story originally written on March 7, 2003

NASA scientists were unable to detect a signal from Pioneer 10 when they tried to contact the spacecraft on February 7, 2003. They believe Pioneer 10's power supply doesn't produce enough energy anymore to power the spacecraft's radio. The last signal received, on January 22, was very weak.

Pioneer 10 was launched from Earth in 1972. It was the first spacecraft to pass through the asteroid belt, and the first to visit Jupiter and take close-up pictures of the largest planet in our Solar System. Pioneer 10 was supposed to last long enough for a 21-month mission. As it turned out, the spacecraft sent signals back to Earth for more than 30 years!

The last signal from Pioneer 10 came from more than 12 billion kilometers (7.6 billion miles, or 82 AU) away. At that distance, radio signals from Pioneer 10, traveling at the speed of light, took more than 11 hours to reach Earth. The spacecraft is headed out of our Solar System; it passed the orbit of Pluto in 1983. It is going in the general direction of the star Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus. Pioneer 10 will reach Aldebaran, which is 68 light-years away, in about 2 million years. The spacecraft carries a gold plaque with information about Earth; just in case "somebody out there" finds it!


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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA