Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall
Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall

From the Team

Learn about the history of objects that will be featured in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall and the progress of the renovation in these blog posts from the team.

To Jupiter and Beyond: Pioneer 10 and 11

A full-size engineering model of the Pioneer 10 /11 spacecraft normally hangs in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall at the National Air and Space Museum. However, a few weeks ago it was removed and placed in the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, while the Milestones gallery undergoes a major renovation in the coming months. The photo depicts how the Pioneer model was hung in Milestones and shows the side of the spacecraft that pointed away from Earth during its flight.

Pioneer 10/11 as it hung in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall. Photo: Eric Long

The Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft were built by TRW Inc. after being awarded a contract by NASA Headquarters in 1969. Each spacecraft included 11 science instruments and a main antenna that was 2.74 meters (9.5 feet) in diameter for communication with Earth. The spacecraft included a primitive computer with a memory that could store a maximum of five, 22-bit-long commands, which seems quite miniscule in today’s era of smartphones! Each spacecraft was powered by four radioisotope thermoelectric generators (on the two booms toward the top of the photo) that produced 140 watts of power at the time of the Jupiter encounters—25 watts of which ran all of the science experiments (compare this to the typical light bulbs used in your home).

Staff prepare to lower Pioneer 10/11. Photo: Mark Avino

Staff lower Pioneer 10/11. Photo: Mark Avino

Pioneer 10 was launched from Cape Canaveral on March 2, 1972, and it became the first spacecraft to traverse the asteroid belt between July 1972 and February 1973, which was a scientific and engineering “unknown” at the time.  Pioneer detected less debris within the asteroid belt than had been anticipated.  On December 3, 1973, Pioneer 10 became the first spacecraft to fly past Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system; it flew within 132,000 kilometers (79,000 miles) of the top of the cloud deck that comprises the visible face of the planet. Communication with Pioneer 10 continued until Jan 23, 2003, during which time the instruments were returning valuable information about the solar wind in the outer solar system. Pioneer 11 was launched on April 5, 1973, making its closest approach to Jupiter on December 2, 1974, passing only 43,000 km (26,000 miles) above the clouds of the giant planet.  Pioneer 11’s path was targeted to fly past Jupiter at precisely the right position so that it would fly on toward Saturn. On September 1, 1979, Pioneer 11 became the first spacecraft to fly past the ringed planet Saturn. It is currently headed in the direction of the constellation Scutum. While these Pioneer spacecraft were once the furthest human-made objects in space, they have since been passed by two Voyager probes.

Jim Zimbelman is a geologist in the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and Space Museum.