Pioneer 10 Crosses Saturn's Orbit

On this day in history, 1976, Pioneer 10 became the first spacecraft to go beyond Saturn. The goal of the mission was to fly past Jupiter, survive the intense radiation that surrounds the large planet, and then travel on a trajectory that would take it beyond our solar system.

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The spacecraft was launched on March 2, 1972, by a three-stage version of the Atlas-Centaur. Pioneer 10 reached an initial speed of 51,800 kilometers per hour, faster than any other manmade object.

On March 2, 1972, Pioneer 10 was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Image credit: NASA

Before and after flying past Jupiter, Pioneer 10 transmitted data on the magnetic fields, energetic particle radiation, and dust populations in interplanetary space. While flying past the giant planet, it transmitted hundreds of photos of Jupiter and its moons. Its closest approach was on December 4, 1973, at a range of roughly 130,354 kilometers.

Pioneer 10 is shown here in the final stages of manufacturing. TRW Space and Electronics Group built the craft. Image credit: NASA

The spacecraft crossed Saturn’s orbit in February 1976, recording data that showed that Jupiter’s large magnetic tail, almost 800 million kilometers long, spanned the entire distance between the two planets.

The spacecraft finally crossed the orbit of Neptune (then the outermost planet) on June 13, 1983.

Shown here is the Pioneer 10 on a Star-37E kick motor just before being encapsulated for launch. Image credit: NASA

Currently, Pioneer 10 is headed toward the red star Aldebaran, although it isn’t expected to pass the star for two million years. The spacecraft’s signal was last detected on January 23, 2003.   

The assembly of Pioneer 10. Image credit: NASA

This diagram shows Pioneer 10's systems. Image credit: NASA

A depiction of Pioneer 10 in deep space. Image credit: Don Davis, NASA

A photo of Jupiter that Pioneer 10 captured. Image credit: NASA