Pioneer 11
Depiction of Pioneer 11 in deep space
Mission type Planetary and heliosphere exploration
Operator NASA / ARC
COSPAR ID 1973-019A
SATCAT № 6421
Website Pioneer Project website(archived)
NASA Archive page
Mission duration 22 years, 5 months, 25 days
Spacecraft properties
Manufacturer TRW
Launch mass 259 kilograms (571 lb)
Power 155 watts (at launch)
Start of mission
Launch date April 6, 1973, 02:11:00 (1973-04-06T02:11Z) UTC
Rocket Atlas SLV-3C Centaur-D1A Star-37E
Launch site Cape Canaveral LC-36B
End of mission
Last contact Did not recognize date. Try slightly modifying the date in the first parameter.
Flyby of Jupiter
Closest approach December 3, 1974
Distance 43,000 kilometers (27,000 miles)
Flyby of Saturn
Closest approach September 1, 1979
Distance 21,000 kilometers (13,000 miles)

Pioneer 11 (also known as Pioneer G) is a 259 kilogram (569 lb) robotic space probe launched by NASA on April 6, 1973 to study the asteroid belt, the environment around Jupiter and Saturn, solar wind, cosmic rays, and eventually the far reaches of the solar system and heliosphere.[1] It was the first probe to encounter Saturn and the second to fly through the asteroid belt and by Jupiter. Due to power constraints and the vast distance to the probe, last contact with the spacecraft was on September 30, 1995.[2]

Mission background


Approved in February 1969, Pioneer 11 and its twin probe Pioneer 10 were the first to be designed for exploring the outer solar system. Yielding to multiple proposals throughout the 1960s, early mission objectives were defined as:

  • Explore the interplanetary medium beyond the orbit of Mars
  • Investigate the nature of the asteroid belt from the scientific standpoint and assess the belt's possible hazard to missions to the outer planets.
  • Explore the environment of Jupiter.

Subsequent planning for an encounter with Saturn added many more goals:

  • Map the magnetic field of Saturn and determine its intensity, direction, and structure.
  • Determine how many electrons and protons of various energies are distributed along the trajectory of the spacecraft through the Saturn system.
  • Map the interaction of the Saturn system with the solar wind.
  • Measure the temperature of Saturn's atmosphere and that of Titan, the largest satellite of Saturn.
  • Determine the structure of the upper atmosphere of Saturn where molecules are expected to be electrically charged and form an ionosphere.
  • Map the thermal structure of Saturn's atmosphere by infrared observations coupled with radio occultation data.
  • Obtain spin-scan images of the Saturnian system in two colors during the encounter sequence and polarimetry measurements of the planet.
  • Probe the ring system and the atmosphere of Saturn with S-band radio occultation.
  • Determine more precisely the masses of Saturn and its larger satellites by accurate observations of the effects of their gravitational fields on the motion of the spacecraft.
  • As a precursor to the Mariner Jupiter/Saturn mission, verify the environment of the ring plane to find out where it may be safely crossed by the Mariner spacecraft without serious damage.[3]

Pioneer 11 was built by TRW and managed as part of the Pioneer program by NASA Ames Research Center.[4] A backup unit, Pioneer H, is currently on display in the "Milestones of Flight" exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C..[5] Many elements of the mission proved to be critical in the planning of the Voyager Program.[6]:266–8

Spacecraft design

The Pioneer 11 bus measured 36 centimeters deep and with six 76-centimeters-long panels forming the hexagonal structure. The bus housed propellant to control the orientation of the probe and eight of the twelve scientific instruments. The spacecraft had a mass of 260 kilograms.[1]:42

Attitude control and propulsion

Pioneer 10 - Pioneer 11 - thrusters - p43.jpg
Orientation of the spacecraft was maintained with six 4.5-N,[7] hydrazine monopropellant thrusters: pair one maintained a constant spin-rate of 4.8 rpm, pair two controlled the forward thrust, pair three controlled attitude. Information for the orientation was provided by performing conical scanning maneuvers to track Earth in its orbit,[8] a star sensor able to reference Canopus, and two Sun sensors.[1]:42–43


The space probe included a redundant system of transceivers, one attached to the high-gain antenna, the other to an omni-antenna and medium-gain antenna. Each transceiver was 8 watts and transmitted data across the S-band using 2110 MHz for the uplink from Earth and 2292 MHz for the downlink to Earth with the Deep Space Network tracking the signal. Prior to transmitting data, the probe used a convolutional encoder to allow correction of errors in the received data on Earth.[1]:43


Pioneer 11 used four SNAP-19 radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) (see diagram). They were positioned on two three-rod trusses, each 3 meters (9 feet 10 inches) length and 120 degrees apart. This was expected to be a safe distance from the sensitive scientific experiments carried on board. Combined, the RTGs provided 155 watts at launch, and decayed to 140 W in transit to Jupiter. The spacecraft required 100 W to power all systems.[1]:44–45


Much of the computation for the mission was performed on Earth and transmitted to the probe, where it was able to retain in memory, up to five commands of the 222 possible entries by ground controllers. The spacecraft included two command decoders and a command distribution unit, a very limited form of processor, to direct operations on the spacecraft. This system required that mission operators prepare commands long in advance of transmitting them to the probe. A data storage unit was included to record up to 6,144 bytes of information gathered by the instruments. The digital telemetry unit would then be used to prepare the collected data in one of the thirteen possible formats before transmitting it back to Earth.[1]:38

Scientific instruments

Helium Vector Magnetometer (HVM)
Measured the fine structure of the interplanetary magnetic field, mapped the Jovian magnetic field, and provided magnetic field measurements to evaluate solar wind interaction with Jupiter.[9]
  • Principal investigator: Edward Smith / JPL
  • Data: PDS/PPI data catalog, NSSDC data archive
Quadrispherical Plasma Analyzer
Peered through a hole in the large dish-shaped antenna to detect particles of the solar wind originating from the Sun.[10]
  • Principal investigator: Aaron Barnes / NASA Ames Research Center (archived website)[11]
  • Data: PDS/PPI data catalog, NSSDC data archive
Charged Particle Instrument (CPI)
Detected cosmic rays in the Solar System.[12]
Cosmic Ray Telescope (CRT)
Collected data on the composition of the cosmic ray particles and their energy ranges.[13]
Geiger Tube Telescope (GTT)
Surveyed the intensities, energy spectra, and angular distributions of electrons and protons along the spacecraft's path through the radiation belts of Jupiter and Saturn.[14]
Trapped Radiation Detector (TRD)

Included an unfocused Cerenkov counter that detected the light emitted in a particular direction as particles passed through it recording electrons of energy, 0.5 to 12 MeV, an electron scatter detector for electrons of energy, 100 to 400 keV, and a minimum ionizing detector consisting of a solid-state diode that measured minimum ionizing particles (<3 MeV) and protons in the range of 50 to 350 MeV.[15]

Meteoroid Detectors
Twelve panels of pressurized cell detectors mounted on the back of the main dish antenna recorded penetrating impacts of small meteoroids.[16]
  • Principal investigator: William Kinard / NASA Langley Research Center[11]
  • Data: NSSDC data archive list
Asteroid/Meteoroid Detector (AMD)
Meteoroid-asteroid detector looked into space with four non-imaging telescopes to track particles ranging from close-by bits of dust to distant large asteroids.[17]
  • Principal investigator: Robert Soberman / General Electric Company[11]
  • Data: NSSDC data archive list
Ultraviolet Photometer
Ultraviolet light was sensed to determine the quantities of hydrogen and helium in space and on Jupiter and Saturn.[18]
  • Principal investigator: Darrell Judge / University of Southern California[11]
  • Data: PDS/PPI data catalog, NSSDC data archive
Imaging Photopolarimeter (IPP)
The imaging experiment relied upon the spin of the spacecraft to sweep a small telescope across the planet in narrow strips only 0.03 degrees wide, looking at the planet in red and blue light. These strips were then processed to build up a visual image of the planet.[19]
  • Principal investigator: Tom Gehrels / University of Arizona[11]
  • Data: NSSDC data archive list
Infrared Radiometer
Provided information on cloud temperature and the output of heat from Jupiter and Saturn.[20]
  • Principal investigator: Andrew Ingersoll / California Institute of Technology[11]
Triaxial Fluxgate Magnetometer
Measured the magnetic fields of both Jupiter and Saturn. This instrument was not carried on Pioneer 10.[21]
  • Principal investigator: Mario Acuna / NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
  • Data: NSSDC data archive list

Mission profile

Timeline of travel
Date Event
Spacecraft launched at 02:11:00.
Passage through the asteroid belt.
Start Jupiter observation phase.
Start Saturn observation phase.
Begin Pioneer Interstellar Mission.

Launch and trajectory

The Pioneer 11 probe was launched on April 6, 1973 at 02:11:00 UTC, by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration from Space Launch Complex 36A at Cape Canaveral, Florida aboard an Atlas-Centaur launch vehicle. Its twin probe, Pioneer 10, had launched a year earlier on March 3, 1972. Pioneer 11 was launched on a trajectory directly aimed at Jupiter without any prior gravitational assists.[24]

Map comparing locations and trajectories of the Pioneer 10 (blue), Pioneer 11 (green), Voyager 1 (red) and Voyager 2 (purple) spacecraft, as of 2007
Pioneer 11 launching from Space Launch Complex 36A
Pioneer 11 launching from Space Launch Complex 36A
Media related to at Wikimedia Commons

Encounter with Jupiter

Pioneer 11 flew past Jupiter in November and December 1974. During its closest approach, on December 2, Pioneer 11 passed 42,828 kilometers (26,612 mi) above the cloud tops.[22] The probe obtained detailed images of the Great Red Spot, transmitted the first images of the immense polar regions, and determined the mass of Jupiter's moon Callisto. Using the gravitational pull of Jupiter, a gravity assist was used to alter the trajectory of the probe towards Saturn.

Pioneer 11 Jupiter encounter
Pioneer 11 Jupiter encounter 
Approach on Jupiter
Approach on Jupiter 
The Great Red Spot imaged by Pioneer 11
The Great Red Spot imaged by Pioneer 11 
The Great Red Spot prior to closest approach
The Great Red Spot prior to closest approach 
Cloud bands along the edge of Jupiter
Cloud bands along the edge of Jupiter 
Beginning polar gravity assist
Beginning polar gravity assist 
Jupiter polar region from 1,079,000 km
Jupiter polar region from 1,079,000 km 
Io imaged from 756,000 km
Io imaged from 756,000 km 
Media related to at Wikimedia Commons

Saturn encounter

Pioneer 11 and Saturn rings on September 1, 1979 (artist's impression)

Pioneer 11 passed by Saturn on September 1, 1979, at a distance of 21,000 km from Saturn's cloud tops.

By this time Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 had already passed Jupiter and were also en route to Saturn, so it was decided to target Pioneer 11 to pass through the Saturn ring plane at the same position that the soon-to-come Voyager probes would use in order to test the route before the Voyagers arrived. If there were faint ring particles that could damage a probe in that area, mission planners felt it was better to learn about it via Pioneer. Thus, Pioneer 11 was acting as a "pioneer" in a true sense of the word; if danger was detected, then the Voyager probes could be rerouted further away from the rings, but missing the opportunity to visit Uranus and Neptune in the process.

Pioneer 11 imaged and nearly collided with one of Saturn's small moons, passing at a distance of no more than 4,000 kilometers (2,500 mi). The object was tentatively identified as Epimetheus, a moon discovered the previous day from Pioneer's imaging, and suspected from earlier observations by Earth-based telescopes. After the Voyager flybys, it became known that there are two similarly-sized moons (Epimetheus and Janus) in the same orbit, so there is some uncertainty about which one was the object of Pioneer's near-miss. Pioneer 11 encountered Janus on September 1, 1979 at 14:52 UTC at a distance of 2500 km and Mimas at 16:20 UTC the same day at 103000 km.

Besides Epimetheus, instruments located another previously undiscovered small moon and an additional ring, charted Saturn's magnetosphere and magnetic field and found its planet-size moon, Titan, to be too cold for life. Hurtling underneath the ring plane, Pioneer 11 sent back pictures of Saturn's rings. The rings, which normally seem bright when observed from Earth, appeared dark in the Pioneer pictures, and the dark gaps in the rings seen from Earth appeared as bright rings.

Pioneer 11 image of Saturn (image F81). Taken on 1979/08/26, showing the satellite Rhea
Pioneer 11 image of Saturn taken on 1979/08/26 
Pioneer 11 image of Saturn taken on 1979/09/01
Pioneer 11 image of Saturn taken on 1979/09/01 
Pioneer 11 image of Saturn taken on 1979/09/01
Pioneer 11 image of Saturn taken on 1979/09/01 
Outgoing Pioneer 11 image of Saturn taken on 1979/09/03
Outgoing Pioneer 11 image of Saturn taken on 1979/09/03 
Pioneer 11 image of Titan
Pioneer 11 image of Saturn's moon Titan 
Media related to at Wikimedia Commons

Interstellar mission

Pioneer anomaly

Analysis of the radio tracking data from the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft at distances between 20–70 AU from the Sun has consistently indicated the presence of a small but anomalous Doppler frequency drift. The drift can be interpreted as due to a constant acceleration of (8.74 ± 1.33) × 10−10 m/s2 directed towards the Sun. Although it is suspected that there is a systematic origin to the effect, none was found. As a result, there is sustained interest in the nature of this so-called "Pioneer anomaly".[25] Extended analysis of mission data by Slava Turyshev and colleagues has determined the source of the anomaly to be asymmetric thermal radiation and the resulting thermal recoil force acting on the face of the Pioneers away from the Sun,[26] and in July 2012 the group of researchers published their results in a scientific journal.[27]

NASA ends operations

On September 29, 1995, NASA's Ames Research Center, responsible for managing the project, issued a press release that began, "After nearly 22 years of exploration out to the farthest reaches of the Solar System, one of the most durable and productive space missions in history will come to a close." It indicated NASA would use its Deep Space Network antennas to listen "once or twice a month" for the spacecraft's signal, until "some time in late 1996" when "its transmitter will fall silent altogether." NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin characterized Pioneer 11 as "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."[28] Besides announcing the end of operations, the dispatch provided a historical list of Pioneer 11 mission achievements.

Current status

Simulated view of the position of Pioneer 11 as of 8 February 2012 showing spacecraft trajectory since launch

On September 9, 2012, Pioneer 11 was 86.005 AU (1.28662×1010 km; 7.9947×109 mi) from the Earth and 86.396 AU (1.29247×1010 km; 8.0310×109 mi) from the Sun; and traveling at 11.376 km/s (25,450 mph) (relative to the Sun) and traveling outward at about 2.400 AU per year.[29] Sunlight takes 11.92 hours to get to Pioneer 11. The brightness of the Sun from the spacecraft is magnitude -17.0.[29] Pioneer 11 is heading in the direction of the constellation Scutum.[29]

Pioneer 11 has now been overtaken by the two Voyager probes, launched in 1977, and Voyager 1 is now the most distant object built by humans.[30]

Pioneer plaque

Pioneer Plaque

Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 carry a gold-anodized aluminum plaque in the event that either spacecraft is ever found by intelligent lifeforms from other planetary systems. The plaques feature the nude figures of a human male and female along with several symbols that are designed to provide information about the origin of the spacecraft.[31]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Fimmel, R. O.; Swindell, W.; Burgess, E. Pioneer Odyssey. SP-349/396. Washington, D.C.: NASA-Ames Research Center.  
  2. ^
  3. ^ Mark, Hans: SP-349/396, Chapter 5, NASA-Ames Research Center, 1974Pioneer Odyssey
  4. ^ NASA - The Pioneer Missions
  5. ^ "Milestones of Flight". Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. 
  6. ^ William E. Burrows, Exploring Space, (New York: Random House, 1990)
  7. ^ Wade, Mark. "Pioneer 10-11". Encyclopedia Astronautica. Retrieved 2011-02-08. 
  8. ^ "Weebau Spaceflight Encyclopedia". 9 November 2010. Retrieved 12 January 2012. 
  9. ^ "Magnetic Fields". NASA / National Space Science Data Center. Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  10. ^ "Quadrispherical Plasma Analyzer". NASA / National Space Science Data Center. Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Simpson 2001, p. 146.
  12. ^ "Charged Particle Instrument (CPI)". NASA / National Space Science Data Center. Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  13. ^ "Cosmic-Ray Spectra". NASA / National Space Science Data Center. Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  14. ^ "Geiger Tube Telescope (GTT)". NASA / National Space Science Data Center. Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  15. ^ "Jovian Trapped Radiation". NASA / National Space Science Data Center. Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  16. ^ "Meteoroid Detectors". NASA / National Space Science Data Center. Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  17. ^ "Asteroid/Meteoroid Astronomy". NASA / National Space Science Data Center. Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  18. ^ "Ultraviolet Photometry". NASA / National Space Science Data Center. Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  19. ^ "Imaging Photopolarimeter (IPP)". NASA / National Space Science Data Center. Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  20. ^ "Infrared Radiometers". NASA / National Space Science Data Center. Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  21. ^ "Jovian Magnetic Field". NASA / National Space Science Data Center. Retrieved 2013-09-24. 
  22. ^ a b "Pioneer 11 Mission Information". Retrieved 23 January 2011. 
  23. ^ Muller, Daniel. "Pioneer 11 Full Mission Timeline". Daniel Muller. Retrieved 9 January 2011. 
  24. ^ http://www.nasa.govs/default/files/images/739459main_ACD97-0036-2.jpg
  25. ^ Britt, Robert Roy (October 18, 2004). "The Problem with Gravity: New Mission Would Probe Strange Puzzle".  
  26. ^ "Pioneer Anomaly Solved!". The Planetary Society. Retrieved 2012-04-20. 
  27. ^ Support for the thermal origin of the Pioneer anomaly, Slava G. Turyshev et al, Physical Review Letters, accepted 11 April 2012, accessed 19 July 2012
  28. ^ "Pioneer 11 to End Operations after Epic Career". NASA / Ames Research Center. September 29, 1995. Retrieved August 7, 2011. 
  29. ^ a b c Peat, Chris (September 9, 2012). "Spacecraft escaping the Solar System".  
  30. ^ Where are the Voyagers
  31. ^ Carl Sagan, Linda Salzman Sagan and Frank Drake (1972-02-25). "A Message from Earth". Science 175 (4024): 881–884.   Paper on the background of the plaque. Pages available online: 1, 2, 3, 4

External links

  • Pioneer Project Home Page
  • Pioneer 11 Profile by NASA's Solar System Exploration
  • Ted Stryk's Pioneer 11 at Saturn page
  • NSSDC Pioneer 11 page
  • NASA SP-396, 1977Pioneer Odyssey, - This is an entire book about the Pioneer 10 and 11 project, with all pictures and diagrams, on-line! Scroll down to click on the "Table of Contents" link.