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Death of a pioneer

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11:24am, March 5, 2003
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Pioneer 10, the first spacecraft to venture to the edge of the solar system, appears to have sent its last signal to Earth. NASA's Deep Space Network of radio receivers last recorded a feeble signal from the venerable craft on Jan. 22, when it was 82 times as far from Earth as the sun is. Another search on Feb. 7 for a signal failed, and NASA plans no further attempts to contact the craft. Engineers propose that Pioneer 10's radioactive power source has finally become too weak for the craft to contact Earth.

Launched in 1972, Pioneer 10 was the first spacecraft to pass through the asteroid belt, the swath of rocky debris that lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. It traveled by Jupiter in 1973 and was the first craft to obtain close-up images of the giant planet. In 1983, Pioneer 10 became the first craft to pass the orbit of Pluto, and it continued to make observations of the solar wind and cosmic rays until its science mission ended in 1997.

"Pioneer 10 was a pioneer in the true sense of the word," says Colleen Hartman, director of NASA's Solar System Exploration Division in Washington, D.C. "After it passed Mars on its long journey into deep space, it was venturing into places where nothing built by humanity had ever gone before," she says.

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