13 June 1983: The First Man-made Object to Leave the Solar System

On 13 June 1983 the Pioneer 10 spacecraft flew beyond the orbit of Neptune and so became the first man-made object to leave the solar system. But this was not the only first during its extraordinary mission.

Pioneer 10

Pioneer 10

Launched on 2 March 1972, Pioneer 10 was the first mission to use a three-stage Atlas/Centaur/TE364-4 launch vehicle. The thrust and spin generated by the three stages propelled the 2.9-metre-long spacecraft towards its destination of Jupiter at a speed of 51,800 kph, making it the fastest man-made object to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.

This speed enabled Pioneer 10, the first spacecraft to use only nuclear electrical power, to pass the moon after 11 hours and cross the orbit of Mars just 12 weeks later. By 15 July the spacecraft had reached the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. Safely emerging after 280 million kilometres it continued on to Jupiter, accelerating to a speed of 132,000 kph.

From 6 November 1973 Pioneer 10’s imaging equipment started recording the surface of Jupiter. The spacecraft transmitted over 300 photographs of Jupiter, its Great Red Spot and three of its moons, Callisto, Ganymede and Europa. On 3 December 1973 Pioneer 10 passed within 130,000 kilometres of the giant planet.

Just twenty months after its launch Pioneer 10’s original mission was over. It had already become the first spacecraft to fly through the orbit of Mars, the first to safely navigate the Asteroid Belt and the first to fly past and photograph Jupiter, but now it was instructed to attempt another first.

Pioneer 10 was sent on its way into the outer reaches of the solar system, collecting valuable scientific data as it went. By February 1976 it had passed the orbit of Saturn and then, on 13 June 1983, it passed the orbit of Neptune and became the first man-made object to leave the solar system.

Although its scientific mission officially ended on 31 March 1997, the Pioneer 10 spacecraft is still travelling towards the red star Aldebaran, in the constellation of Taurus, and should pass the star in about two million years. Unfortunately, contact with the spacecraft has been lost. The receipt of the last telemetric data occurred on 27 April 2002 and the final, faint signal was received on 23 January 2003.

Pioneer 10's Plaque

Pioneer 10's Plaque

But just in case Pioneer 10 should be intercepted by intelligent life on its journey, an aluminium plaque was attached to the spacecraft before its launch showing drawings of a man and woman and the location of our solar system. Pioneer 10 may still have a role to play.

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