The First Starship…

…is Pioneer 10.

It was launched in March 1972, to conduct a flyby of Jupiter. In March 1973, it became the first human-made object to pass beyond the asteroid belt. It passed Jupiter on December the Third, 1973. It returned the first close-up photos of our solar system’s largest planet. After that, it carried on, further outward. By this point it was travelling much too fast to return to the inner solar system.

Even after its Jupiter flyby, it remained in use. For many years, it was used as a training aid for telemetry operators, allowing people to practise picking up weak signals from space. However, over time, the RTG power-unit slowly ran down and energy levels dropped. The last signal was received from Pioneer 10 on January the 23rd, 2003. There was an attempt to pick it up one last time in 2006, but this was unsuccessful. By now its antennae will no longer be aligned with the Earth, so there is no realistic hope of ever hearing from it again.

But, space is quite empty. There’s nothing much that can happen to Pioneer 10, barring the odd hydrogen atom here and there, and maybe a very occasional stray dust particle. We can reasonably expect it to carry on, for millions of years (if not more). It will still be drifting out there, somewhere in the darkness, long after we and almost all of our terrestrial works have vanished. The most anything can reasonably last on Earth is a few thousand years. Plants, mould, erosion, weather, earthquakes and volcanos … all of these things will intervene. Even the Pyramids, arguably the most durable human buildings, will be worn down eventually. Probably our last memorial on this planet will be empty petroleum reservoirs, but even they will eventually subside or flood.

But, barring the unimaginable, in around 2 million years’ time, Pioneer 10 will pass within a few light-years of the star Aldebaran. After that, who knows? However, there is every chance that it will become our longest-lasting, and most-distant, monument.


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