The Pioneer Plaque: Our Calling Card to the Cosmos

In 1972 and 1973, Pioneer 10 and 11, respectively, left planet Earth with one-way tickets out of the Solar System. These two pioneers (heh) explored Jupiter, Saturn, and their associated moons before heading out into the great unknown on an uncharted interstellar voyage. Each of them carried a plaque, dubbed the Pioneer Plaques, and that’s what this story is about.

Eric Burgess, science correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, recognized that by being the first spacecraft designed to leave our Solar System, it too would be planet Earth’s emissary to the stars. He believed the Pioneers should contain a message from its creators, one that could serve as an introduction and greeting from any being that might make contact with the Pioneers thousands or millions or more years from now. This thought spawned the idea for what became the Pioneer plaques. Burgess approached Carl Sagan, who was at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, working in connection with the Mariner 9 program. Sagan was thrilled with the idea and agreed to promote the idea with NASA officials.

Two identical plaques were made–one for Pioneer 10 and one for Pioneer 11. They are 9 inches by 6 inches, .05 inches thick, and constructed of gold-anodized aluminum. They were constructed and engraved by Precision Engravers of California, a company that is still in business today and sells replica plaques. The design itself was created by Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, with the artistic help of Sagan’s then-wife Linda Salzman Sagan. NASA accepted the idea and their design, and received approval to have them flown aboard Pioneer 10 and 11. They would be attached to the craft’s antenna supports, positioned such that they would be protected from erosion caused by interstellar dust.

The design consists of a few different elements symbolizing humanity’s place within the galaxy, and information about our species.

The Pioneer Plaque

Beginning in the top-left is a schematic representing the hyperfine transition of  neutral hydrogen.Hyperfine transition of neutral hydrogen extracted from the Pioneer plaque

Wait! Don’t go! Give me a chance to try and unpack that gobbledygook for you. 

This piece of the plaque is actually kind of important, because it serves as a reference for the other elements of the plaque. For this explanation, consider that the electrons in atoms exist in one of two states: spin up and spin down. Hydrogen was chosen for the diagram due to it being the most abundant element in the Universe as well as one of the simplest, containing a single electron. Basically, the magnetic field of an electron can either be oriented parallel to the magnetic field of the atom’s nucleus, or it can be oriented in the opposite direction. These are the two states I referred to. The diagram shows both of these phases connected by a line that represents the transition–a hyperfine transition I might add–between these two states. When this occurs, a photon is emitted with a specific wavelength of about 21 centimeters and a frequency of 1420 MHz. A being that might one day come into contact with the plaque would hopefully understand the distance and frequency represented, for if they could they would then be able to use it as a reference for the other diagrams on the plaque.

Like, for example, the diagram of us.

Depiction of humans on the Pioneer plaque


Here, the plaque depicts a nude male and female human. To the right of the woman figure are hash marks indicating the top and bottom of her height. Between those marks is the symbol “| – – -“, which is the binary symbol for 8. The woman is 8 tall. 8 what, you’re asking? 8 feet? 8 inches? Remember when we created our scale using the hydrogen transition thingamajig, and came up with 21 centimeters? That’s right, the woman is 8 x 21 cm, which equals 168 cm (just a skosh over 5′ 6”). Make sense?

There have been claims made that the original drawing had the man and woman holding hands, but that a conscious decision was made to separate the two out of concern that an alien gazing upon the plaque would think of the two humans as a single being. There are also rumors that the original design included a more anatomically-correct woman body, but that single extra line needed to be erased to garner top NASA official authorization.

What a wonderful time to have been around JPL for those discussions. There’s a lot we can learn about ourselves within a debate on how to present ourselves to alien beings thousands or millions of years into the future.

Moving on…

Silhouette of the Pioneer spacecraft relative to the size of the humans.Behind us (the humans), there’s a silhouette of the Pioneer spacecraft, showing the relative size of humans to the craft. I guess this is there in case the aliens are too lazy to do the hydrogen transition conversion thing we just talked about.

At the bottom of the plaque, we have a depiction of our solar system and where Pioneer came from. Also, more hash marks. I hope the aliens realize that this time they’re supposed to be multiplying by 1/10th of the distance of Mercury’s orbit from the Sun, and not 21 cm like they were to do with the human models. If not, they’ll have a hard time finding us if they’re looking for tiny planets that have orbits mere hundreds of centimeters from their star. I really hope aliens enjoy puzzles.


The Solar System with the trajectory of the Pioneer spacecraft.


I also hope that by the time they see this part of the plaque that word hasn’t gotten to them about Pluto being downgraded to dwarf planet….

But ours is only one of millions of solar systems within our corner of the galaxy. Providing a map of our solar system won’t help them if they have no way to find it to begin with. That brings us to the next part of the plaque:


This schematic shows the location of Sol (our sun) relative to the center of the Milky Way and 14 pulsars. I’m going to spare you the technical details and give you the bare bones version. The length of the lines indicate the relative distance between the Sun and the various pulsars. The long binary numbers give the periods of the pulsars, basically their signature. One thing worth noting about the periods of the pulsars, is that their frequency will change over time. Knowing this, a being deciphering this part of the plaque would be able to not only figure out where in the galaxy the Pioneers originated from, but also when they left Earth. Depending on where the plaque is encountered, only some of the pulsars might be visible thus the redundancy of including 14. This should be enough to allow for triangulation back to us. There’s a 15th line coming out of the center of the figure (which, if you haven’t guessed already is where the Sun is located); it’s the long one pointing to the right. It shows the relative distance from the Sun to the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

So there you have it. The Pioneer Plaque: a representation of humans and their size, a celestial map to the place and time the craft and its plaque originated from, and a tool to use as a standard unit of measure to decode all of the details.

If only we put so much effort into the selfies we post of ourselves on Facebook.

NASA's State of the Solar System

Here’s an excellent infographic that details NASA’s current Solar System (and beyond!) spacecraft missions. It lists every craft NASA out exploring various bodies and their current status.

Click the image to make it a little bigger.

State of the Solar System infographic

State of the Solar System infographic



Pioneer Non-Anomaly

Artist depiction of Pioneer spacecraft in deep space.

Artist depiction of Pioneer spacecraft in deep space. Image Credit: NASA

Pioneer 10 and 11 launched in 1972 and 1973, respectively, and were Earthkind’s  first explorers of the outer planets and emissaries to deep space.  Pioneer 10 became the first spacecraft to pass through the asteroid belt and observe Jupiter up-close, providing us with details of the gas giant’s interior, atmosphere, magnetic fields, and some of the most breath-taking images of Jupiter we had ever seen. Pioneer 11 wasn’t far behind, and after making its own observations of Jupiter, it went on to Saturn to open our eyes to the mighty ringed planet in the same way Pioneer 10 had done for Jupiter. (But this isn’t a story about the accomplishments of the Pioneer program; I’ll save that for another day.)

In addition to all of the data and images sent back, however, those two Pioneers also sent back a mystery. As early as 1980, it was noticed that the spacecrafts were experiencing an acceleration force toward the sun of .000000000874 m/s2 (meters per second, per second)1. To be clear, this does not mean the Pioneers are heading back towards the Sun. Pioneer 10 and 11 are cruising away from the Sun at a speed of around 132,000 kilometers per hour (82,000 miles per hour) and 175,000 kilometers (110,000 miles per hour), respectively, and this force is 10 billion times smaller than the acceleration we feel from the Earth’s gravitational pull. Nonetheless, the force is real and our instruments and techniques are precise enough to notice.

Many plausible causes were considered to explain the anomaly, including:

perturbations from the gravitational attraction of planets and smaller bodies in the solar system; radiation pressure, the tiny transfer of momentum when photons impact the spacecraft; general relativity; interactions between the solar wind and the spacecraft; possible corruption to the radio Doppler data; wobbles and other changes in Earth’s rotation; outgassing or thermal radiation from the spacecraft; and the possible influence of non-ordinary or dark matter.

In 1994, a thorough, long-term, collaborative study was undertaken to try and solve the anomaly. Initial results from that study were released in 1998, with a detailed analysis following in 2002. All known systematics were tested and calculated, yet that 8.74±1.33×10−10 m/s2 deceleration force2 remained. The origin of the anomaly was still unaccounted for, though the leading theory was that it was the result of anisotropic thermal radiation (don’t let the big words intimidate you, this just means heat was being radiated from the Pioneers in a certain direction). In 2004, another paper was published, proposing a deep space mission to solve the anomaly once-and-for-all.

But now, that expensive deep-space mission won’t be necessary, according to a paper just submitted by astrophysicist Slava Turyshev and his team of scientists and engineers, with thanks, in no small part, to The Planetary Society and its members.3

With funds provided by The Planetary Society, Turyshev and his team were able to collect and compile great volumes of data from the two Pioneer missions. The data had to come from a variety of different sources and came in any number of formats, media, and condition. According to Bruce Betts, Director of Projects at The Planetary Society:

“This was not an easy (or quick) task. These missions lasted for more than 30 years. Imagine all the people, computing formats, and hardcopy and electronic storage devices involved over that period, and you’ll start to get an idea of the problem.”

Boxes of Pioneer data tapes.

Boxes of data tapes from the Pioneer missions. Image Credit: The Planetary Society

Think of what you would have to go through if I handed you a 5.25″ floppy disk that contained… well, it couldn’t contain much compared to the amount of data we exchange today, but whatever it was, it was something you needed. Imagine trying to find the hardware to read the disk, and then the intermediary hardware and software that would be required to get the data from the disk onto one of today’s modern machines so you could even utilize it. If you consider how much technology has changed between now and floppy disks, you can only begin to imagine how much it has changed since the 1970s and how cumbersome compiling all of this data, let alone securing it, must have been. I digress.

Once Turyshev and his team were able to assemble the more-complete data picture, they were able to isolate the source of acceleration: that anisotropic thermal radiation. Again, Bruce Betts:

Why was the thermal emission from the spacecraft anisotropic and slowing the spacecraft down? First of all, because the Pioneer spacecraft were spin-stabilized and almost always pointed their big dishes towards Earth. Second of all, because two sources of thermal radiation (heat) were then on the leading side of the spacecraft. The nuclear power sources, more formally Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTG), emitted heat towards the back side of the dishes. When the dishes reflected or re-radiated this heat, it went in the direction of travel of the spacecraft. Also, the warm electronics box for the spacecraft was on the leading side of the spacecraft, causing more heat to spill that direction. Photon pressure, the same type of thing used in solar sailing, then preferentially pushed against the direction of travel, causing a tiny, but measurable, deceleration of the spacecraft – the Pioneer Anomaly.

At the end of the day, there are a few take-home lessons to be learned. First, Occam’s Razor proved itself once again (some of the suggestions to account for the Pioneer Anomaly were the need to invoke a new type of exotic physics). The second is that you can’t just apply Occam’s Razor and say that anisotropic thermal radiation is the simplest theory and therefore correct, you have to painstakingly collect all of the data needed to prove it — and more importantly, you have to have the experts that are willing to put forth the years decades of research to solve the mystery. Finally, you take in the account that this was made possible with the help of citizen scientists and those of us that contribute to furthering our understanding of the Universe, through means such as The Planetary Society4.

This new paper will undoubtedly generate more discussion about the Pioneer Anomaly and others will work to verify or disprove its results, but at this point it seems pretty safe to say that one of space physic’s mysteries is no more.

  1. 8.74±1.33×10−10 m/s2
  2. In physics, acceleration is a change in velocity over time. It does not only apply to an increase in speed. Traveling in your hot-rod sports car, as you step on the gas and race up to 100 miles per hour, you’re experiencing acceleration. When you notice a brick wall rapidly closing in from ahead of you and you stand on the brakes, you’re experiencing a negative acceleration. Acceleration is just a change from a constant velocity.
  3. Are you a member of The Planetary Society? I am. You should be, too! Sign up!
  4. Again, join!

NuSTAR Update

Artist's concept of NuSTAR on orbit. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In anticipation of an upcoming launch, I recently provided an overview of NASA’s next on-orbit telescope, NuSTAR. At that time, the launch date had not yet been set. A news release was issued today, postponing the launch:

The planned launch of NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) mission has been postponed after a March 15 launch status meeting. The launch will be rescheduled to allow additional time to confirm the flight software used by the launch vehicle’s flight computer will issue commands to the rocket as intended.

The time required to complete the software review has moved NuSTAR beyond the March timeframe currently available on the range at Kwajalein. In the interim, NASA will coordinate with the launch site to determine the earliest possible launch opportunity. This is expected to be within the next two months.

(emphasis mine)

At this point, I’m not entirely sure what might have caused the delay. While NASA is calling it a postponement, they had never officially announced the launch date — though it was implied that it would be in March. In any case, I’d much rather them spend a couple of extra months increasing their confidence in a flawless launch and operations than face the potential consequences of hasty action.


In just a few days (it looks like the launch date is March 21, but the date is “under review” as of this writing), the next NASA Small Explorer (SMEX) mission is set to launch. NuStar (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) is the next orbital telescope that will collect high energy X-ray data and is the first on-orbit telescope to use a new generation of hard X-ray optics. Among its mission objectives are locating massive black holes, study the population of compact objects (such as collapsed stars and stellar mass black holes) located in the center of the Milky Way, create maps of of the material from young supernova remnants to better understand how stars explode and create elements, and discover what causes the relativistic jets that emanate from supermassive black holes.

Following a 1-month on-orbit checkout period, NuSTAR will begin its 2-year primary science mission; its main objectives taking an estimated 18 months (including the start-up month) with the six remaining months devoted to targeted observations, some of which will be determined after the mission has already begun. While the mission length is scheduled for two years, the telescope contains no consumables and can essentially function as long as it remains in orbit, which is in excess of five years. This extra time can be worked into extended missions working on Guest Observer proposals.

NuSTAR will work from an altitude of about 575 – 600 km (350 – 370 miles) in a low-earth orbit, inclined just 6° from the equator. This will allow it to have a view of about 80% of the sky at any given time.

The craft itself looks unlike any you’ve probably seen before. While it will launch in a stowed position, once in orbit the two main components will extend apart via a 10-meter mast, which will give the telescope a 10.15-meter focal length.

Artist's concept of NuSTAR

Artist's concept of NuSTAR on orbit. NuSTAR has a 10-m (30') mast that deploys after launch to separate the optics modules (right) from the detectors in the focal plane (left). The spacecraft, which controls NuSTAR's pointings, and the solar panels are with the focal plane. NuSTAR has two identical optics modules in order to increase sensitivity. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

I can’t help but see some resemblance between NuSTAR and the “Satellite of Love” from Mystery Science Theatre 3000.

Satellite of Love from Mystery Science Theatre 3000

Satellite of Love from Mystery Science Theatre 3000

But I digress….

What’s also interesting to me about NuSTAR is the way it will be launched. Rather than a ground-based launch, the Pegasus XL rocket is carried up to 40,000 feet (12.19 kilometers) on the underside of a L-1011 Stargazer carrier aircraft, contracted through Orbital Sciences Corporation. Once dropped, it will fall for about five seconds before the rocket engines ignite, taking it up to an orbit altitude and trajectory.

Stay tuned for a successful launch of NuSTAR this month. I can’t wait to see the images it will produce and what mysteries it will unravel.