[This story ran on the Associated Press wire on March 1, 1997, written by Dara Akiko Tom.]
LOS ANGELES (AP) - Twenty-five years and 6 billion miles later, the pulse on Pioneer 10 is growing weak.
Launched March 2, 1972, the satellite was the first human-made object to travel out of the solar system and is currently the farthest such object from Earth. Not bad for a satellite designed for a 21-month mission.
NASA's Ames Research Center has continued to receive information from the satellite -- data on magnetic fields, solar wind and cosmic particles -- but it's too fragile to perform any significant scientific work. It has only enough energy to power one of its 11 original programs.
"It's done its job very well and deserves to retire," said B.J. O'Brien, who managed the program for satellite-builder TRW Inc. and who himself retired in 1988.
The satellite's radio signal takes nine hours and 15 minutes to reach Earth. The 8 watts of power in each signal is the equivalent of a night light, and by the time it reaches Earth, the power measures less than a trillionth of a watt.
The 570-pound Pioneer 10 sent back the first close-up views of Jupiter in December 1973 and then used the giant planet's gravitational pull to sling itself into space at 86,000 mph. It has since slowed to about 30,000 mph.
A few space companies and scientists will periodically monitor Pioneer 10, but NASA will pretty much let it float away. At its current speed, the satellite would pass within three light years of a star called Ross 248 in about 32,600 years.
The satellite carries a plaque with an earthly greeting, just in case someone or something should find it "out there." The plaque shows a drawing of a man and woman, the man with his right hand raised in greeting; the nine planets; Pioneer 10's path; and the distance and direction from the sun to 14 pulsating stars.
Original file name: CNI - Pioneer Spacecraft
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