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40 years ago today: Pioneer 11 swept past Saturn

1 Sep 2019, 10:41 UTC
40 years ago today: Pioneer 11 swept past Saturn
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This image from Pioneer 11 – taken when the spacecraft was 1,768,422 miles (2,846,000 km) from Saturn – shows Saturn and its largest moon Titan. The irregularities in ring silhouette and shadow are due to technical anomalies in the preliminary data, later corrected. Image via NASA.
On September 1, 1979 – 40 years ago today – NASA’s Pioneer 11 came within 13,000 miles (21,000 km) of Saturn, making it the first spacecraft ever to sweep closely past that world. The spacecraft found a new ring for Saturn – now called the “F” ring – and also two new moons, almost smacking into one of them as it soared past. It was an astounding achievement at the time, when spacecraft from Earth were just beginning to venture outward. More importantly, Pioneer 11 did what pioneers always do: it paved the way for those who came after it, including the two Voyager spacecraft, which launched in 1977 and visited Saturn in 1980 and ’81. Ultimately, Pioneer 11 helped lay the groundwork for the wonderful Cassini mission to Saturn, which orbited the planet from 2004 to 2017 and which provided unprecedented and spectacular views of Saturn and its rings and moons.
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