Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2001 August 25
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Pioneer 10: The First 7 Billion Miles
Illustration Credit: Courtesy Pioneer Project, ARC, NASA

Explanation: Q: What was made by humans and is 7.3 billion miles away? A: Pioneer 10 -- and 1997 was the 25th anniversary of its launch. Almost 11 light-hours distant, Pioneer 10 is presently about twice as far from the Sun as Pluto, and bound for interstellar space at 28,000 miles per hour. The distinction of being the first human artifact to venture beyond the known planets of the Solar System is just one in a long list of firsts for this spacefaring ambassador, including; the first spacecraft to travel through the asteroid belt and explore the outer Solar System, the first spacecraft to visit Jupiter, and the first to use a planet's gravity to change its course and to reach solar-system-escape velocity. Pioneer 10's mission is nearing an end. Now exploring the distant reaches of the heliosphere it will soon run out of sufficient electrical power to operate science instruments. However, the 570 lb. spacecraft will continue to coast and in 300,000 years or so it will pass within about 3 light years of nearby star Ross 248. Ross 248 is a faint red dwarf just over 10 light years distant in the constellation Taurus. (Note: In 1998 Voyager 1, launched 5 years later but traveling faster than Pioneer 10, became humanity's most distant spacecraft.)

Tomorrow's picture: Tilted Planet

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Authors & editors: Robert Nemiroff (MTU) & Jerry Bonnell (USRA)
NASA Technical Rep.: Jay Norris. Specific rights apply.
A service of: LHEA at NASA/ GSFC
& Michigan Tech. U.