Where Is Pioneer 10 Now?

Updated on December 27, 2017
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Recently married on Sept. 8, 2017, Jason Ponic works in the exciting world of Hollywood film and television by day and writes by night.

Pioneer 10 in deep space.
Pioneer 10 in deep space.

When NASA lost communication with Pioneer 10 in 2003, it was a solemn end of a mission and program that spanned 30 years. Pioneer 10 would join its sister Pioneer 11 as the most distant derelict human-made objects from Earth. The Pioneer's achieved one first after another. The first to explore the outer planets and the first to leave the solar system. These two probes were instrumental in the evolution of the Voyager program.

The Pioneer Probes.
The Pioneer Probes.

The Probes

Pioneers 10 and her twin, Pioneer 11, differed greatly than the predecessor probes named Pioneer. Previous Pioneers were considerably smaller in size and function. These two were designed specifically to explore the outer planets. Powered by twin nuclear thermoelectric trussed generators capable of generating 150 watts for a minimum of two years. Ultimately these things where able to purpose 29 years worth of power but at a considerably deteriorated rate.

Packed in its core, eleven scientific instruments from cameras to infrared spectrometers. The selection of which was heavily scrutinized during plan stags since this was the first time the outer planets would be explored.

The Mission

Pioneer 10 launched to the heavens on March 3, 1972. Her 32,000 mph velocity was so fast that she passed the moon less than twelve hours after launch, breaking the record for the fastest human made object. In just a couple months, the spacecraft entered the asteroid belt and in just a little over a year, arrived at Jupiter.

A series of 16,000 commands, sixty days worth, were issued to the probe to begin its scientific analysis of the gas giant. For the first time humans were able to see the planet up close. After several months of study, Pioneer 10 left Jupiter using its gravity to slingshot it towards Saturn. It then used Saturns gravity in 1976, Uranus' in 1979 and finally Neptune's in 1983 to send it out of the Solar System.

End of an Era

NASA officially ended Pioneer 10's mission on March 31, 1997 after the probe was well out of range to transmit any useful data from its instruments. By now the probe's power supplies were beginning to drain after twenty years in space.

By 2001, power output fell below the minimum 100w needed for the probe to function. NASA was able to squeeze another couple years out of it by only powering a few instruments at a time. Eventually power dropped too low for the high gain antenna to send a strong enough signal to Earth. The last usable telemetry link was received on April 27, 2002. The signal was so weak, it was barely detected. Afterward the probe fell silent. One final faint signal was received in January 2003 from a distance of ten billion miles from Earth. NASA would try several times to reestablish contact, the final attempt in March 2006 with no success. They concluded that there simply wasn't enough power left onboard to transmit the distance required.

The trajectory paths of Pioneers 10, 11 and Voyagers 1,2.
The trajectory paths of Pioneers 10, 11 and Voyagers 1,2.

Current Location

In 2016, NASA estimated Pioneer 10 to be approximately 10 billion miles from Earth, traveling 26,900 mph. If it doesn't get hit or destroyed by space debris, it'll be surpassed by the still active Voyager 2 probe in 2019. It will take approximately two million years to reach the closest star.

The Pioneer Plaque
The Pioneer Plaque

The Pioneer Plaque

Just in case if the Pioneers are found by an intelligent species, both probes carry a gold anodized aluminum plaque with visual representations of a human male and female as well as the launch directory of the probe.

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    • K S Lane profile image

      K S Lane 

      6 months ago from Melbourne, Australia

      It's incredible to think that something made by humans is so far away from earth. I also find it hilarious that they drew the male on the plaque waving. Intelligent species who've had no contact with humans aren't going to know what a wave is! Perhaps they just drew him like that to show his palm, but still!

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