Artist's rendering of Pioneer 10.
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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 radioisotope power supply no longer generates enough energy to power the spacecraft's transmitter. The last signal received, on January 22, was very weak.

Pioneer 10 was launched from Earth on March 2, 1972. It was the first spacecraft to pass through the asteroid belt, and the first to visit Jupiter and provide us with close-up pictures of the largest planet in our Solar System. Pioneer 10 was originally designed to last long enough to complete a 21-month mission. As it turned out, the spacecraft sent signals back to Earth for more than 30 years!

When the last signal from Pioneer 10 was received, the spacecraft was more than 12 billion kilometers (7.6 billion miles, or 82 AU) from Earth. 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, having passed the orbit of Pluto in 1983, 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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