Photo found here
Hold onto your ears, folks, because the Pioneer 5 interplanetary satellite just turned on the big transmitter.
Well, it’s actually only 150 Watts—only a little more powerful than your average light bulb. But it’s like shouting compared to the 5 Watt radio it was using until now.
Pioneer is now more than 8 million miles away—32 times as far away as the Moon. It is slowly drifting in toward the Sun on a course that almost parallels that of the Earth. The plan had been for the spacecraft to intercept the orbit of Venus, but it looks like its initial velocity wasn’t high enough.
This is not so big a deal, since Venus wasn’t going to be anywhere near the probe at any point, anyway. What is a big deal are the reams of useful data still streaming in loud and clear from the nearly two-month old spaceship.
When all is said and done, Pioneer 5 is going to revolutionize our understanding of the solar system. We are taught that space is a vacuum, and that a vacuum has nothing in it. In fact, there are all kinds of particles and magnetic fields, all of them interacting in exciting and interesting ways. And we had no way of understanding how these phenomena worked until we sent a probe out into interplanetary space, beyond the influence of the Earth.
For instance, Pioneer acts as a sort of picket, letting us know just how much of the flux of energetic particles on Earth comes from the Sun . Working together with Explorer VII, which is in Earth orbit, and balloons, which float high in the lower atmosphere, we can get an excellent view of radiation all the way from space to the ground. It turns out that the sun is constantly bathing the Earth in high energy electrons—not just during solar flares, as had been hypothesized. It also appears that the level of cosmic radiation from the sun often reaches levels which are hazardous to life forms.
One experiment that never seems to work out is the micrometeoroid detector. You’d think something so simple, really just a big microphone attached to an electric circuit, would be hard to mess up. Yet I can’t recall a single STL-built detector that has performed adequately. Pioneer’s has given squirrelly numbers that clearly indicate a sick experiment.
On the other hand, the probe is still working, so whatever dust bullets are out there can’t be too dangerous.
Meanwhile, Pioneer’s magnetometer, the most sensitive yet launched, has confirmed the wobbly interface between the Earth and the Sun’s magnetic fields is a good 55,000 or so miles out—twice as far as originally expected. The turbulence in the region also doesn’t match theory.
This is why empiricism beats philosophy: you can come up with all the pretty models you like, but you have to test things to find out how the universe actually works!
In other news, it looks like that story about the NASA “weather study” U2 was a pack of lies. It was, as Khruschev exclaimed with a shark-toothed grin, actually a spy plane caught in the act of spying. And he has the pilot in custody.
I understand why we have spy planes. I understand why we had to lie about the spy plane. I know that the upcoming summit probably wasn’t going to bear much fruit anyway. It’s still frustrating.
On a pleasanter note, a very happy 40th birthday to William Tenn, the quite excellent British import.
See you soon with more print and film updates! I’ve got a lot of material to cover…