- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 26, 2002

It left our solar system almost a decade ago, sailing beyond the last familiar planets and into lonely space at 28,000 miles an hour.
Tiny, plucky Pioneer 10 is now 7.5 billion miles away and won't reach another star system for 2 million years. But the spacecraft just can't let go of Earth. It's still chirping out there, sending back viable data to appreciative scientists who are both amazed and nostalgic over such loyalty.
"Pioneer is still producing good science, and still making us proud," said Larry Lasher, project director at NASA's Ames Research Center in California. "This is a testimony to Yankee know-how."
Pioneer 10 was given up for dead five years ago.
Back in 1997, NASA officials "pulled the plug" and cut the budget for the project, despite its 25 years of faithful exploration and research, not to mention a certain cachet. Pioneer carried astronomer Carl Sagan's "Hello" message, presumably for the benefit of other life forms somewhere down the road.
The golden plaque featured a pair of friendly, naked humans and directives to planet Earth.
After NASA abandoned Pioneer, snippy media reports declared an era had ended and the craft had "flat lined," advising, "Don't bother phoning home, Pioneer 10 no one on Earth is listening anymore."
There was a bakery cake and a champagne toast as original scientists and technicians gathered to bid a final farewell.
But Pioneer was not quite ready for a final farewell.
Like a persistant heartbeat, NASA's Deep Space Network detected a faint signal with a familiar signature last year. It was Pioneer 10. Meant to be in service only 21 months, the dutiful, Volkswagen-sized craft still had enough active plutonium on board to power its radio transmitter and a single "geiger tube" telescope.
"We've had two more communications since then," said Mr. Lasher, who noted that Pioneer's messages, which take 11 hours to reach Earth, are very basic, indeed.
"A little red light bulb denoting 'code 23' on a console lights up, and we receive numbers. I know it sounds primitive, but it this is original equipment, and it still works," he said.
"Pioneer 10 provided 44 minutes of data that met rigorous validation criteria," reads the most recent NASA report. "The spacecraft was chosen as a convenient test vehicle for testing new methodology for communication technology in support of NASA's future interstellar probe mission."
Slowly but surely, the craft continues to send cosmic ray measurements that have some profound implications.
"They gauge how much influence our sun has way out there," said Mr. Lasher. "There will be a point at which the sun has no more influence a point called 'heliopause.' Then, Pioneer will enter true, interstellar space. But we haven't gotten there yet."
With some creative "piggyback" budgeting, Mr. Lasher has managed to get a little money to follow Pioneer's far-flung dispatches. With help from other NASA divisions, he'll contact the craft again in June and July, and for as long as Pioneer's power generator lasts.
"You can't tell about such things. We thought Pioneer was gone in 1997," Mr. Lasher said. "We thought wrong."
At this very moment, Pioneer is gliding along at 7.6 miles a second, through space that is 460 degrees F. below 0. Pioneer still generates a little warmth, however, amidst "a panoply or stars, like you'd see on the clearest of clear nights," Mr. Lasher said.
Our sun, he added, would still be visible from Pioneer's location, albeit as a "very bright star." In some 2 million years, Pioneer will reach Aldebaran, a red star that forms the "eye" of the Taurus constellation.
Back on Earth, the spacecraft has thousands of fans and a very active Web site (https://spaceprojects.arc. nasa.gov/Space_Projects/pioneer/ PNhome.html). It was featured on a 1999 postage stamp and had a cameo role in a "Star Trek" movie.
"Pioneer 10 remains a cultural icon," said Mr. Lasher. "It is still good engineering, and still an adventure."


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