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Pioneer 10 falls silent after 31 years

February 26, 2003

NASA ends contact with spacecraft 7.6 billion miles from Earth

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Pioneer 10, the first spacecraft to venture out of the solar system, has fallen silent after traveling billions of miles from Earth on a mission that has lasted nearly 31 years, NASA said Tuesday.

What was apparently the spacecraft´s last signal was received Jan. 22 by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory´s Deep Space Network. At the time, Pioneer 10 was 7.6 billion miles from Earth; the signal, traveling at the speed of light, took 11 hours and 20 minutes to arrive.

The signal and the two previous signals were very faint. The Deep Space Network heard nothing from Pioneer 10 during a final attempt at contact on Feb. 7. NASA said the spacecraft´s radioisotope power source probably had decayed to the point that it no longer had enough power to send additional transmissions to Earth.

No more attempts at communication are planned.

Pioneer 10 was launched March 2, 1972, on a 21-month mission. It became the first spacecraft to pass through the asteroid belt and the first to obtain close-up images of Jupiter. In 1983, it became the first human-made object to leave the solar system when it passed the orbit of distant Pluto.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft, which was launched in 1977, outpaced Pioneer 10 in 1998 to become the most distant human-made object. That probe is still in communication with the Deep Space Network, and is currently involved in the Voyager Interstellar Mission to study the outer limits of the sun´s sphere of influence.

Although Pioneer 10´s mission officially ended in 1997, scientists continued to track the TRW Inc.-built spacecraft as part of a study of communication technology for future interstellar missions. Pioneer 10 hasn´t relayed telemetry data since April 27.

“It was a workhorse that far exceeded its warranty, and I guess you could say we got our money´s worth,” said Larry Lasher, Pioneer 10 project manager at NASA´s Ames Research Center.

Pioneer 10 carries a gold plaque engraved with a message of goodwill and a map showing the Earth´s location in the solar system. The spacecraft continues to coast toward the star Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus. It will take 2 million years to reach it.

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