Sometimes I tend to fall into the trap of thinking of things only in the span of my own lifetime, or on the scale of a modern, post-Vietnam era, without giving much thought to the things that happened before, or the things that will happen in the future.
We look at the night sky in passing and ascertain whether it’s clear or cloudy, and go on with our lives, without thinking much about anything else going on up there. But occasionally we’re reminded, and for that I’m thankful.
Sixteen years ago today – Jan. 23, 2003 -- marked an event of note in the space industry – the last radio communication from the Pioneer 10 space probe.
It was launched in March 1972 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., with a mission of passing through the asteroid belt beyond Mars and exploring the outer Solar System.
By November 1973, the probe was nearing Jupiter, and by the end of the month it had returned multiple high-quality images of the planet.
But it didn’t stop there. Three years later, it crossed the orbit of Saturn, and of Uranus three years after that. In 1983, it crossed the orbit of Neptune.
Its signal continued to fade as its distance from Earth and its time in space grew.
Even after Pioneer 10’s mission officially ended in 1997, the 571-pound craft continued to press on. The final radio signal was received today in 2003, when the craft was about 7.45 billion miles from earth.
According to the Wikipedia entry for the probe, Pioneer 10 was expected to be about 11.3 billion miles from Earth when the new year dawned on Jan. 1 of this year.
“If left undisturbed,” the article states, “Pioneer 10 and its sister craft Pioneer 11 will join the two Voyager spacecraft and the New Horizons spacecraft in leaving the Solar System to wander the interstellar medium.”
In Pioneer 10’s case, it is headed in the direction of the star Aldebaran, although it will take a couple of million years to get there.
Now, I’m counting on you to remind me in two million years when that happens. Just kidding. We’ll all be dead, and the planet will probably be a lot different. Maybe we’ll have an Arby’s, finally. If there any humans around, though (seriously), they won’t necessarily be stuck on Earth. They’ll be on other planets, or just in their interplanetary RVs, sailing around in space.
Part of me wishes I could still be here then, to see the heights that science and technology can take us to. But the other part of me is happy just to be here, tonight, with snow on the ground and stars in the sky – and Pioneer 10, pushing ever onward in its silent journey toward the unexplored.