Pioneer 10 blasted into space from Cape Canaveral on March 2nd 1972 on top of an Atlas-Centaur rocket. Its primary mission was to photograph Jupiter but in early 1973 it became the first spacecraft to traverse the asteroid belt. Imaging of Jupiter began late 1973 and the closest approach was 132,252 km in December 1973.
There were two very unique aspects of this mission. This would be the first manmade object to leave our solar system and travel forever towards the stars and secondly a gold plaque – see picture below – was bolted to the spacecraft.
The plaque depicts a man and woman and shows the silhouette of the Pioneer craft. Further, there is information on our location in the galaxy and data depicting scientific values of key parameters on Earth .Back then I wondered if this plaque would ever be seen again and the grains of a story formed in my mind. But it would be 40 years before I wrote it!
In 2003 NASA reported as follows…
‘Pioneer 10 spacecraft sends last signal – after more than 30 years, it appears that the venerable Pioneer 10 spacecraft has sent its last signal to Earth. Pioneer’s last, very weak signal was received on 23rd January 2003. NASA engineers report that Pioneer 10’s radioisotope power source has decayed and it may not have enough power to send further transmissions to Earth.’
‘And now,’ continued the NASA spokesman, ‘Pioneer 10 is the most distant manmade object at over 16 billion kilometres from Earth. Pioneer 10 will now continue to coast silently as a ghost ship through deep space into interstellar space heading generally for the red star Aldebaran in Taurus the Bull – a mere 68 light years away.’
However in 2003 Pioneer 10 changed course by 90 degrees and accelerated to rendezvous with Cloud Planet 132 years later. Perhaps you might propose how this could happen or if you want to find out read – The Blue People of Cloud Planet.