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Pioneer 11: Watching the Saturn watchers # #





Close-up of a partial view of golden Saturn and the rings cutting the image.
Pioneer 11 took this photo in September 1979, from a distance of 248,500 miles (400,000 km). The edge of Saturn’s disk can be clearly seen through a wide gap in the rings called the Cassini Division. The faintly shaded Keeler Gap can also be seen opposite the planet. Image via Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA.

Pioneer 11 was the first land vehicle to ever fly past the planet Saturn. Its closest approach to the ringed planet was on September 1, 1979. Patti Winter was at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.—where Project Pioneer was managed—and was keeping an eye on Saturn watchers on that historic day. In the story below, Patti shares her memories. Here’s what Saturn Watchers Patty Winter watched…

Scientists at Pioneer Saturn Mission Control are glued to their computer screens like Las Vegas tourists in front of one-armed bandits. What they don’t want to see is a field of dollar signs: a cynical computer way of saying they just lost a multimillion-dollar spacecraft. Pioneer 11 is about to pass Saturn’s rings. In theory, it will pass well outside of them. But no one on earth knows exactly how long the episodes are. At 70,000 mph (112 km/h), a piece of ice and rock no larger than a snowball can destroy a Pioneer.

In the Oculus cum TV studio on one side of the room, NASA’s Larry King describes the scene to an audience from around the world. It’s Saturn’s day, September 1, 1979, a few minutes before nine in the morning. The expected time to cross the loop is 9:02 a.m. PDT. Scientists here at Ames give the event a two-minute lead time on either side. They will not consider the crossing successful until 9:04 has passed safely.

Watch Pioneer 11

In the space science building, nearly a hundred journalists are paying attention to their screens. Television screens allow them to peek over the shoulders of the mission controllers and watch the data stream from Pioneer. At 9:00 Pioneer’s normal output of letters and numbers is still displayed on the screen. In fact, we are waiting for an event that has already happened. Pioneer crossed Saturn’s ring plane at 7:36 a.m. PDT. But it took roughly an hour and a half for the bits of information to make their way through a billion miles (1.6 billion kilometres) of space to a waiting antenna in Spain.

Click here for the current distance and location of Pioneer 10 and 11

The graphic shows the orbits of the Solar System and the flights of the Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft.
This graphic shows the paths of the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft through our Solar System and beyond. Image via NASA.

Waiting for the pioneer signal

Right after 9:01 now, Larry King is counting down the seconds to the expected transit time. It has reached zero, and the usual data is still displayed on the screen. But scientists and journalists remain silent.

It is impossible not to wish Pioneer well. Originally built just to explore Jupiter before it rolls around infinity, scientists redirected Pioneer 11 toward Saturn a few years later. It’s now giving us our first up-close look at the beautifully ringed planet before joining Pioneer 10 as one of the first artificial objects to leave our solar system.

Little Pioneers: Only 9 x 9.5 feet (2.7 x 2.9 m) large, alone in space except for radio communication to their little home planet, listening for instructions and responding to their responses. Pioneer 10 is now outside the orbit of Uranus. In 1987, it will cross the hypothetical frontier of our solar system and continue towards the constellation Taurus. The Pioneer 11 goes in almost the opposite direction.

A message to the stars

Each of them held a small golden plaque with a message from the inhabitants of the third planet from Sol, just in case one of them found one of the little travelers. It probably won’t, but it seems polite to just introduce ourselves, just in case.

Drawing of a man, a woman, a diagram of the solar system, other informative drawings.
The Pioneer plate, which Carl Sagan helped design and put on board the first ever spacecraft to leave Earth into interstellar space, via Wikimedia Commons.
Major: Spacecraft hull in the foreground out of focus, plaque in focus in the background.
larger view. | The plaque on the Pioneer spacecraft was blurred between the spacecraft’s plate and struts. Image via NASA.

Pioneers Extension Journey

But back to Saturn, back to the blue and white planet across from the Sun. Screens at the Ames still deliver good news, but has Pioneer really skipped the episodes? We don’t know for sure, because we’re not entirely sure where the rings are. There were some problems in receiving the data. The people who built Pioneer 11 never expected to have to send data again all these years and through all these miles. And who knew that the Sun would send out a violent electromagnetic storm a few days before encountering Saturn?

Amazingly, we can still hear the Pioneer mini transmitter through the hash, and the tools work beautifully. Charlie Hall and the Pioneer team were happy to get anything, so they are happy with the wealth of data they received. They have data on Saturn’s magnetic field and radiation belts, the atmosphere and the mysterious moon Iapetus.

Pictures from deep space

And the pictures! Captured in black and white at different wavelengths to bring out the various details of Saturn’s disk; Colorful shots of the planet with the rings approx. And breathtakingly colorful images of the rings themselves: those ultra-thin rings, thousands of times as thick, so ethereal and fragile-looking. But it only takes one small pebble to shell a Pioneer.

Saturn is close up and the rings are roughly on the edge of the rim.  One moon at the bottom.
This image from Pioneer 11 shows Saturn and its moon Titan. Irregularities in the ring silhouette and shadow are due to technical anomalies in the raw data, which were subsequently corrected. At the time this image was taken, Pioneer was 1,768,422 miles (2,846,000 km) from Saturn. But Pioneer 11’s path through Saturn’s outer rings eventually took it 13,000 miles (21,000 km) from the planet, discovering two new moons (one of which was nearly impacted in September 1979) and a new “F” ring. Image via NASA Ames.

Pioneer home phones

We’re coming in at 9:03, and there’s a growing feeling in Ames that things are going to be okay. An accident could happen at any time, of course, but Saturn’s gravitational field has attracted virtually all nearby matter to the ever-changing bands around its center, so the rest of the vicinity is nearly empty, or so scientists hope. Now Larry King tells us it’s 9:04, and computer screens haven’t changed. It’s still the same reassuring mix of letters and numbers, not dollar signs.

Someone in Mission Control says out loud:

We did it.

Applause and a few cheers fill the press room. It’s not a wild reaction. It’s not like watching Apollo 17 glow in the night in Florida cheering inwardly, he goes! he goes! he goes! After all, we can’t actually see this landmark. Pioneer can only take still photos. The human’s reaction this time was a sigh of relief, a happy feeling that a little envoy from Earth had received a warm welcome from a neighbor as he headed toward the stars.

A narrow view of a portion of Saturn's yellow and black shaded rings as well as its shadow on the planet.
Pioneer 11 captured this image of Saturn on September 1, 1979. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Bottom line: Patti Winter of Menlo Park, California, remembers the day Pioneer passed the 11 rings of Saturn. The Pioneer mission is managed by NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, which today maintains the Pioneer mission historical archive.


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