“The Little Spacecraft That Could”: Remembering Pioneer 11, 50 Years On

Artist’s concept of Pioneer 11 as it embarks on its interstellar mission. Image Credit: Don Davis, via NASA

Spectacular Saturn, the Solar System’s second-largest planet, has been known to humanity for thousands of years, but only in the last few centuries, since the invention of the telescope, has its nature and glorious system of rings become better understood. The 1980 and 1981 visits by the twin Voyager probes and the multi-year tour by the U.S./European Cassini orbiter between 2004 and 2017 revealed a significant amount about Saturn, but it was Pioneer 11—launched 50 years ago tonight, at 9:11 p.m. EDT on 5 April 1973—which visited the planetary “Bringer of Old Age” and explored it at close range for the first time.

Video Credit: NASA

Pioneer 11 was one of two probes specifically intended to conduct the first exploration of the outer Solar System. The 570-pound (260-kilogram) spacecraft and its twin, Pioneer 10, launched in March 1972, were targeted to characterize for the first time the interplanetary medium beyond the orbit of Mars, together with the first in-situ examination of the asteroid belt and detailed observations of giant Jupiter.

However, it was hoped that if Pioneer 10 succeeded in these daunting objectives, Pioneer 11’s trajectory could be tweaked to enable humanity’s first-ever, close-range glimpse of Saturn in September 1979. Its core goals included mapping Saturn’s immense magnetic field, measuring its interaction with the solar wind, taking temperature and pressure profiles of its atmosphere, observing its unique ring system and pegging the mass and other characteristics of the planet and its retinue of moons. Another fundamental facet Pioneer 11’s visit to Saturn was to verify the environment of the ring plane, and how safely it could be traversed by a spacecraft, ahead of the Voyager missions.

The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) was used to observe the planet on 6 June 2018, when Saturn was approximately 870 million miles (1.4 billion kilometers) from Earth. Visible in this Hubble image are the classic rings as recorded by the very first astronomers to observe the planet with telescopes. Photo Credit: NASA

For its part, Pioneer 10 rose from Earth in March 1972 and successfully crossed the orbit of Mars, passed through the mysterious regime of the asteroid belt without incident by February 1973 and achieved a triumphant rendezvous with Jupiter in December 1973. By this time, Pioneer 11 itself had also been launched.

Following a spate of poor weather in Florida which hampered pre-flight preparations, its Atlas-Centaur booster roared away from Cape Kennedy’s Launch Complex (LC)-36 at 9:11 p.m. EDT on 5 April 1973 and delivered the tiny spacecraft smoothly uphill. Fifteen minutes after departing Earth forever, Pioneer 11 separated from the final stage of the launch vehicle, but all was not well.

Pioneer 11 undergoes final checkout, ahead of launch. Photo Credit: NASA

Its first hours of flight proved traumatic, when one of the two booms holding its four Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs)—plutonium-fed power sources that yielded 155 watts at launch and were expected to have naturally decayed to 140 watts by the time it reached Jupiter—stubbornly refused to unfurl. The booms were designed to position the RTGs as far from the scientific payload on the main body of the spacecraft as possible and helping to slow Pioneer 11’s initial spin-rate.

Several “burns” by the hydrazine-fed thrusters were executed to vibrate it open and the spacecraft was reoriented to prevent excessive solar heating, after which the stubborn boom successfully unfurled. This served to bring Pioneer 11’s spin rate within its predicted parameters at 4.8 rpm.

Video Credit: NASA, via Retro Space HD/YouTube

Five days after launch, trajectory specialists slightly nudged the spacecraft’s course to aim its passage just to the “right” of Jupiter, as seen from Earth, some 12,400 miles (20,000 kilometers) above the Jovian cloud-tops, to facilitate an array of options, including a Saturn flyby. By this stage, all 12 scientific instruments were functioning normally and returning valuable data.

By March 1974, almost a year after launch, Pioneer 11 had smoothly traversed the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, revealing—as did its twin, Pioneer 10—an apparent absence of high-velocity projectiles which might penetrate and cripple future spacecraft. In fact, most of the larger particles ranged from 0.004 inches (0.1 mm) to 0.04 inches (1 mm), with only a few sizing larger than 4-8 inches (10-20 cm) across.

Pioneer 11 launches via an Atlas-Centaur booster on the night of 5 April 1973. Photo Credit: NASA

A month later, in April, the spacecraft’s trajectory was again nudged to correct its Jupiter aim-point, enabling it to approach the giant planet three times closer than Pioneer 10. As well as providing improved data, it would also utilize the giant’s immense gravity to accelerate to 108,000 miles per hour (173,000 kilometers per hour) to reach Saturn, more than 1.5 billion miles (2.4 billion kilometers) away.

Early in December 1974, after 21 months traveling through deep space, Pioneer 11 became history’s second spacecraft to successfully reach and study Jupiter. Its next mission would truly be an adventure into the Solar System’s uncharted depths.

Gorgeous view of Jupiter, captured by Pioneer 11. Photo Credit: NASA

And with the unknown, almost inevitably, came the problems. These manifested themselves, gremlin-like, in the form of spurious spacecraft commands, which went on for several months and could not be attributed to radiation.

It turned out that Pioneer 11’s asteroid/meteoroid detector—a non-imaging tool intended to track particles from dust-particle-size and bigger—had sustained radiation damage and was the source of the problem. It was shut down, but during the process to identify the problem the spacecraft’s healthy plasma analyzer was also turned off.

Jupiter’s north polar region, as seen from Pioneer 11. Photo Credit: NASA

When commanded back on again, it came alive, but for a while refused to provide data. It was another reminder that Pioneer 11 was voyaging into the unknown.

There existed two main proposals to observe Saturn at close range, which called for Pioneer 11 to daringly pass inside the ring-plane or—more conservatively—outside. NASA management opted for the more conservative option, keenly aware that Pioneer’s data would prove critically important for the upcoming Voyager missions.  

Video Credit: NASA, via Retro Space HD/YouTube

Humanity’s first-ever visit to Saturn would clearly be a momentous event, especially for those retirees who had worked on the project earlier in its conception. Six key retirees, known affectionately as the “over-the-hill gang”, returned to work for this critical period.

Late in July 1979, the campaign to observe Saturn began in earnest. NASA managers had selected a flight path which would provide a pathfinder for the twin Voyager probes—which, it was hoped, would conduct flybys of all four gas giants during their “Grand Tour” of the outer Solar System—and on 29 August Pioneer 11 began several weeks of close-range observations of the Saturnian system.

Impressive view of Saturn, with its large moon Titan visible at the lower part of the picture. Photo Credit: NASA

Early that morning, it passed the strange, two-toned moon Iapetus, then tiny Phoebe a few hours later. Two days later, the spacecraft swept within 414,000 miles (666,000 kilometers) of Hyperion, before embarking on its close passage of Saturn on 1 September.

That day’s events began with encounters with the moons Epimetheus, Atlas, Mimas—characterized by its vast Herschel crater—and Dione, before achieving a closest approach to Saturn of 12,795 miles (20,591 km) at 11:29:34 a.m. EDT. Over the next few hours, Pioneer 11 passed Janus, Tethys, Enceladus, Calypso and Rhea, before making a distant flyby of Titan at 1 p.m. EDT on 2 September. Yet even those distant observations showed that smog-enshrouded Titan was likely far too cold to support life.

Fuzzy view of Titan, as seen from Pioneer 11. Photo Credit: NASA

Several more weeks of distant observations were conducted from afar and by early October 1979 Pioneer 11’s focus on Saturn ended. So began the Pioneer Interstellar Mission to send the spacecraft out of the Solar System forever.

And that voyage was a long one. Not until February 1990—more than a decade after its triumphant Saturn flyby—did Pioneer 11 cross the orbit of the then-outermost planet, Neptune, to begin its interstellar mission. Five years later, the remaining power levels aboard the spacecraft had grown so low that its scientific instruments could no longer be adequately operated and all contact came to an end. 

Video Credit: NASA

Late in 1995, more than two decades had passed since launch and Pioneer 11 was four billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) from its planet-of-origin. And its radio signal now took over six hours to complete the one-way transit back to Earth.

“Americans should remember Pioneer 11 as a great achievement,” said NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin. “This is the little spacecraft that could, a venerable explorer that has taught us a great deal about the Solar System and, in the end, about our own innate drive to learn. Pioneer 11 is what NASA is all about: exploration beyond the frontier.”

Following in Pioneer 11’s footsteps, Dragonfly will arrive at Titan in 2034. Video Credit: NASA

Its mapping of Jupiter’s radiation environment paved the way for the Voyagers and it had journeyed way above the ecliptic plane—as high as 100 million miles (160 million kilometers)—to reveal in tantalizing depth the nature of the Sun’s magnetic field of influence. During the historic Saturn encounter, Pioneer 11 examined the magnetosphere, magnetic field and general structure of the second-biggest planet in the Solar System.

It found a new ring, labeled the “F” ring, which resembled a contorted tangle of narrow strands, its material possibly “shepherded” into place by unseen moonlets. This was proven in 1980 when Voyager 1 identified the tiny moons Prometheus and Pandora at the F ring’s edge. Pioneer 11 showed that Saturn’s magnetic field was slightly tiled by less than a degree to its rotation poles and revealed the presence of a magnetospheric “bow shock” extending 870,000 miles (1.4 million kilometers) from its center.

Image Credit: NASA

Today, five decades since launch and almost three decades since it fell silent for the final time, Pioneer 11 resides more than 110 Astronomical Units—well over 10.2 billion miles (16.4 billion kilometers)—from Earth and is steadily moving outward at about 25,150 miles per hour (40,470 kilometers per hour). Its future and what its long-deaf sensors and long-blind imaging instruments may someday encounter can only be guessed at.

Yet one thing remains certain. Fifty years on from its launch, Pioneer 11’s name is more apt than ever, for it was truly a pioneer for all of our subsequent visits to Saturn and its findings have substantially aided the development of future missions to explore this strange giant planet.

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