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Remembering Pioneer 10: Trailblazer Of The Asteroid Belt

On March 2, 1972, NASA spacecraft Pioneer 10 took off from Cape Canaveral, Fla. on a mission that took us farther into our solar system than we had ever been before. Pioneer 10 was the first spacecraft to encounter Jupiter and to traverse the asteroid belt, which scientists had previously feared to be too hazardous for spacecraft.

The mission paved the way for other spacecraft including Voyager 1, which has now reached interstellar space and is officially the farthest man-made object from Earth.

Pioneer 10 passed within 81,000 miles of Jupiter, a historic encounter that directly impacted the design of future spacecraft.  Pioneer 10 sent back images of Jupiter and its moons, as well as measurements of the planet’s magnetosphere, radiation belts, magnetic field, atmosphere and interior, data which was crucial for designing both the Voyager and Galileo spacecraft.

Pioneer 10 transmitted data back to Earth until January 23, 2003, when its power source finally degraded. It is now coasting through space, believed to be heading towards the red star Aldebaran, which is about 68 light years away and will take the spacecraft over 2 million years to reach.

Should Pioneer 10 encounter alien life, it contains a plaque to convey its origins. The plaque, picture above, is in both Pioneer 10 and its sister spacecraft Pioneer 11 and was designed by the astronomer Carl Sagan. Along with a man and a woman, the plaque depicts the location of Earth in the galaxy.

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