Still a Pioneer, 5 billion miles and 20 years later

March 02, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

Looking for a compact, reliable vehicle made in the U.S.A.?

Then check out the Pioneer 10. It uses less energy than a 100-watt light bulb, is maintenance-free and weighs about as much as a large motorcycle.

Sure, the NASA spacecraft, launched 20 years ago today, has already traveled the equivalent of 54 round trips between the Earth and the sun. But it's expected to scoot trillions of miles farther and could easily outlast human civilization.

Sound ideal? Well, taking delivery could be tricky.

At 2:58 a.m. today, the spacecraft passed a point 5 billion miles from Earth and is still hurtling, propelled by its momentum, into interstellar space at a speed of 28,900 mph.

This modest and ungainly contraption, which resembles a backyard satellite dish, was the first spacecraft to push past the asteroid belt and explore the outer solar system. It has already pierced deeper into space than any other human-made object.

Richard O. Fimmel, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's veteran project manager for Pioneer 10, said in a telephone interview last week that NASA behemoths such as the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope or the $450 million Magellan Venus-mapping spacecraft have produced a lot of ground-breaking science but have experienced dramatic hardware failures.

Pioneer 10, constructed with its twin Pioneer 11 by TRW Corp. for $50 million, has been almost trouble-free for two decades "because it's so much simpler," he said.

The spacecraft's systems were designed to work for 21 months, long enough to fulfill its original mission of studying Jupiter.

Today, 240 months later, seven of Pioneer 10's 11 scientific instruments are still gathering and transmitting data back to Earth.

"As you get more and more complex, there are more things that can go wrong," said Dr. Fimmel, 67, who is based at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., and has worked on Pioneer 10 since before its launch.

"I do believe NASA should -- and I believe they are starting to now -- put up less expensive, simpler spacecraft in larger quantities instead of putting so many eggs in one basket, and then finding that if something goes wrong, it's all gone," he said.

The scientific explorer doubles as a kind of cosmic message-in-a-bottle, carrying a 6-by-9-inch gold-anodized plaque inscribed with human figures and other symbols that are designed to explain earthlings to any aliens who might stumble on it.

Pioneer 10 also has been searching for evidence of a long-theorized 10th planet and for signs of gravity waves.

NASA expects to lose contact with Pioneer 10 around 2000 as its power supply weakens.

Later, the gradually decelerating spacecraft will snap the grip of the sun's gravity and keep cruising at 27,000 mph "essentially forever," Dr. Fimmel said.

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