Pioneer-10, First Spacecraft to Jupiter

Forty years ago today — March 2, 1972 — Pioneer-10 launched from Cape Canaveral atop an Atlas Centaur rocket, on its historic journey to the Solar System’s largest planet.

(The Pioneer Plaque designed by Carl Sagan and Frank Drake. NASA image.)

Pioneer-10 was the first mission to fly beyond the orbit of Mars and the Asteroid Belt, and the first to explore Jupiter. Pioneer-10 passed within 81,000 miles (200,000 km) of Jupiter on December 3, 1973.

Fifteen experiments were carried to study the interplanetary and planetary magnetic fields; solar wind parameters; cosmic rays; transition region of the heliosphere; neutral hydrogen abundance; distribution, size, mass, flux, and velocity of dust particles; Jovian aurorae; Jovian radio waves; atmosphere of Jupiter and some of its satellites, particularly Io; and to photograph Jupiter and its satellites. Instruments carried for these experiments were magnetometer, plasma analyzer, charged particle detector, ionizing detector, non-imaging telescopes with overlapping fields of view to detect sunlight reflected from passing meteoroids, sealed pressurized cells of argon and nitrogen gas for measuring the penetration of meteoroids, UV photometer, IR radiometer, and an imaging photopolarimeter, which produced photographs and measured polarization.

In 1983, Pioneer-10 left our Solar System traveling in the general direction of Aldebaran, 68 light years away. It will take Pioneer-10 over two million years to reach Aldebaran. Should an alien civilization find Pioneer-10 during its voyage, they will also find a pictorial greeting in the form of a plaque on the side of the spacecraft.

On the plaque a man and woman stand before an outline of the spacecraft. The man’s hand is raised in a gesture of good will. The physical makeup of the man and woman were determined from results of a computerized analysis of the average person in our civilization.

The key to translating the plaque lies in understanding the breakdown of the most common element in the universe – hydrogen. This element is illustrated in the left-hand corner of the plaque in schematic form showing the hyperfine transition of neutral atomic hydrogen. Anyone from a scientifically educated civilization having enough knowledge of hydrogen would be able to translate the message. The plaque was designed by Dr. Carl Sagan and Dr. Frank Drake and drawn by Linda Salzman Sagan.

More information about Pioneer:

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Galileo and Ganymede

Fifteen years ago today — June 27, 1996 — the Galileo space probe made its first flyby of Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon.

(Single-filter image of Ganymede, taken 06/26/96. NASA image.)

The Galileo mission began in October of 1989 with its launch from the Space Shuttle Atlantis, as recalled in our space history item. On its June 1996 flyby, the orbiter cruised past Ganymede at an altitude of only about 835 km (519 mi).

The Ganymede flyby timeline includes details about observations the spacecraft made before, during, and after its flyby. You can also visit the Galileo legacy site for more information on the mission.

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Cassini's Jupiter Slingshot

In today’s space history installment, ten years ago — December 30, 2000 — the Cassini spacecraft made its closest approach to Jupiter on its way to its rendezvous with Saturn.

(Jupiter, taken by the Cassini spacecraft. NASA mosaic image.)

Cassini used Jupiter’s gravity in the now almost passe “slingshot” maneuver to propel it farther out in the solar system toward Saturn. It flew by Jupiter at a distance of 6 million miles (9.7 million kilometers).

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Space History Today: First European Navigation Satellite Launch

Five years ago today — December 28, 2005 — the European Space Agency launched its first navigation satellite.

The Galileo In-Orbit Validation Element-A (GIOVE-A) spacecraft launched on a Soyuz-Fregat rocket out of the Baikonur Cosmodrome. It was the first of the planned European navigation constellation modeled after (and intended to be independent from) the U.S. Global Positioning System. Designed to operate an estimated 2 years, GIOVE-A is still operational today.

The European system, named Galileo, was to be complete by the end of this year, with all 30 satellites (27 active and 3 spares) on orbit and operational. To date, however, only GIOVE-A and GIOVE-B are in orbit, with the first four operational satellites (serving also as In-Orbit Validation spacecraft) set to be launched in 2011.


And, in unrelated Galileo space history, 10 years ago today the Galileo spacecraft flew by Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede, for the sixth time. The flyby was timed while Ganymede was in Jupiter’s shadow, to look for any auroral activity. Otherwise, it just gives me an excuse to link to this cool image:

(Ganymede, taken by the Galileo spacecraft on its first flyby. NASA image.)

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Passing By Venus — We Were in the Neighborhood …

Twenty years ago today — February 9, 1990* — the Galileo spacecraft flew by Venus in a course-adjustment maneuver on its way to Jupiter. The probe passed about 10,000 miles (16,000 km) above our sister planet.

(Venus images from the Galileo spacecraft, taken through violet and infrared filters. NASA image.)

The Venus flyby gave the mission team the chance to test out Galileo‘s cameras and instruments in preparation for its encounter with Jupiter. The “gravity-assist” of the spacecraft swinging around the planet boosted Galileo’s speed and set it on an intercept course with … Earth. Two similar maneuvers around our home planet would eventually place the spacecraft on course for its final destination.

Here’s the press release on the flyby, which is kind of interesting, and here’s a gallery of images from the encounter.

*February 9th on the West Coast, where the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was controlling the mission; it was already February 10th on the East Coast. (If that matters to you.)

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Europa Flyby

Ten years ago today — January 3, 2000 — the Galileo space probe made a flyby of Jupiter’s moon, Europa.

(Natural and false color images of Europa. NASA image. Click to enlarge.)

… the spacecraft flew over Jupiter’s icy moon Europa on Monday morning, January 3, at an altitude of 351 kilometers (218 miles). Galileo then performed observations of three of Jupiter’s smaller moons — Amalthea, Thebe and Metis — at 7:30 p.m. Pacific Standard Time on Monday. The encounter was capped off with several observations of Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io at about 4 a.m. PST Tuesday, January 4, 2000.

The Galileo mission was originally supposed to end in December 1997, but was extended twice. The mission finally ended with a descent into Jupiter’s atmosphere in September 2003. Kudos to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for another excellent mission!

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In Space History: a Pioneer Approaches Jupiter, and Atlantis Launches

Thirty-five years ago today — November 3, 1974 — while on approach to its December flyby of Jupiter, the Pioneer-11 spacecraft sent back the first polar images of Jupiter, according to this NASA site.

(First image of Jupiter’s polar region, by Pioneer-11. NASA image from the National Air & Space Museum.)

We’ll have more about the Pioneer-11 flyby in December, when it made its closest approach to Jupiter.

And 15 years ago today — November 3, 1994 — the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched from the Kennedy Space Center on mission STS-66.

(STS-66 mission patch. NASA image.)

U.S. astronauts Donald R. McMonagle, Curtis L. Brown, Jr., Ellen Ochoa, Scott E. Parazynski, and Joseph R. Tanner, along with French astronaut Jean-Francois Clervoy, conducted a variety of experiments on the third flight of the Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Sciences (ATLAS) payload. The mission landed at Edwards Air Force Base on November 14.

Of note: since shuttle pilot Curtis Brown hails from North Carolina, his STS-66 mission is also featured on the North Carolina Aerospace Initiative web site, specifically on this November history page. (Full disclosure: I’m the Associate Director of the NCAI, and built the web pages in question.)

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Galileo in Space, Twenty Years Ago

Twenty years ago today — October 18, 1989 — Space Shuttle Atlantis launched from Kennedy Space Center on mission STS-34. Astronauts Donald E. Williams, Michael J. McCulley, Franklin R. Chang-Diaz, Shannon W. Lucid and Ellen S. Baker launched the Galileo spacecraft shortly after arriving in orbit.

(STS-34 mission patch. Click to enlarge.)

Nearly six years later, on July 13, 1995, Galileo rendezvous with the planet Jupiter and released its descent probe into the Jovian atmosphere.

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Cometary Impact and Other Space History Items

Fifteen years ago today — July 18, 1994 — fragment G of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet hit the planet Jupiter. Pieces of the comet had started impacting the gas giant on July 16, and continued to bombard it until July 22.

(Hubble Space Telescope images of the Shoemaker-Levy “Fragment G” impact. The bottom image shows the plume about 5 minutes after impact on July 18, 1994, and the next shows the “fresh impact site” about 90 minutes later. The upper images show the evolution of the impact area over the next few days due to Jupiter’s winds. NASA image from

In other space history, which I didn’t post yesterday because it was a crazy busy day:

Eighty years ago yesterday — July 17, 1929 — Dr. Robert Goddard launched a liquid-fueled rocked in Auburn, Massachusetts. The vehicle carried a small camera, a thermometer, and a barometer, and actually generated publicity about a possible “moon rocket.”

It only took forty years before men were on their way to the moon on the same date. Pity that we haven’t made similar progress since.

And 25 years ago yesterday — July 17, 1984 — Soyuz T-12 launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome to carry Vladimir A. Dzhanibekov, Svetlana Y. Savitskaya, and Igor P. Volk to the Salyut 7 space station. A few days later, Savitskaya would become the first woman to conduct a spacewalk.

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