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NASA seeks to contact spacecraft 30 years after launch

The Associated Press

MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. (AP) — NASA hopes to hear from its Pioneer 10 spacecraft on Saturday, 30 years to the day after it was launched on a journey that has taken it 7.4 billion miles from Earth.

Scientists operating a National Aeronautics and Space Administration radio telescope in Spain will beam the robotic probe a message on Friday afternoon, then wait for a reply they hope to receive 22 hours later.

“The only way we can listen to Pioneer 10 is to speak to it first,” said Larry Lasher, the mission’s project manager.

If successful, it would mark the first time since July that scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center in the Silicon Valley have heard from the TRW Inc.-built spacecraft.

“We’re going to try again this year to see if Pioneer 10 still lives on,” said David Lozier, the mission’s flight director.

The Pioneer 10 spacecraft was launched March 2, 1972. It was the first spacecraft to pass through the asteroid belt and the first to obtain close-up images of Jupiter. In 1983, it became the first manmade object to leave the solar system when it passed the orbit of distant Pluto.

Pioneer 10 is currently 7.4 billion miles from Earth, traveling at 27,380 mph relative to the sun. At that distance, radio signals take 22 hours and five minutes to make the roundtrip between the Earth and the spacecraft.

The spacecraft mission came to a formal close in 1997, but the probe has remained in fairly regular contact with Earth, returning limited scientific data.

Picking out the faint signal of Pioneer 10’s eight-watt transmitter will aid scientists designing ways of communicating with a future probe that will travel into interstellar space up to 37 billion miles from Earth.

Pioneer 10 carries a gold plaque engraved with a message of goodwill and a map showing the Earth’s location within the solar system.

The spacecraft is heading for a bull’s eye: the red star Aldebaran that forms the eye of the constellation Taurus, the bull. It will take Pioneer 10 more than 2 million years to reach the star’s neighborhood. ——

On the Net:

Pioneer Project:

http://spaceprojects.arc.nasa.gov/Space–Projects/pioneer/PNhome.html


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