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Pioneer and ‘The Long Result’

It was Tennyson whose narrator, recalling youthful wanderings and celestial vistas in the poem ‘Locksley Hall,’ wrote about ‘the fairy tales of science, and the long result of Time.’ That long result is something we seldom look at in our feverish and accelerated world, but in these closing paragraphs from a book written with Chesley Bonestell in 1972, Arthur C. Clarke thinks about the Pioneer spacecraft, the distant future and the things that may survive man. For the Pioneers will keep going.

“As our space-faring powers develop, we may overtake them with the vehicles of a later age and bring them back to our museums, as relics of the early days before men ventured beyond Mars. And if we do not find them, others may.

“We should therefore build them well, for one day they may be the only evidence that the human race ever existed. All the works of man on his own world are ephemeral, seen from the viewpoint of geological time. The winds and rains which have destroyed mountains will make short work of the pyramids, those recent experiments in immortality. The most enduring monuments we have yet created stand on the Moon, or circle the Sun, but even these will not last forever.

“For when the Sun dies, it will not end with a whimper. In its final paroxysm, it will melt the inner planets to slag and set the frozen outer giants erupting in geysers wider than the continents of Earth. Nothing will be left, on or even near the world where he was born, of man and his works.

“But hundreds — thousands — of light-years outward from Earth, some of the most exquisite masterpieces of his hand and brain will still be drifting down the corridors of stars. The energies that powered them will have been dead for aeons, and no trace will remain of the patterns of logic that once pulsed through the crystal labyrinths of their minds.

“Yet they will still be recognizable, while the universe endures, as the work of beings who wondered about it long ago and sought to fathom its secrets.”

Arthur C. Clarke and Chesley Bonestell, from Beyond Jupiter: The Worlds of Tomorrow (New York: Little, Brown), 1972.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Adam Crowl August 13, 2006, 21:03

    I wonder how long it’ll last until the slow vaporisation of its metal components cause it to fall apart?

  • Administrator August 14, 2006, 9:32

    I’d love to see the number on that myself. In any case, both Pioneers should be relatively intact for their next encounters. Pioneer 10 drifts into the general vicinity of Aldebaran in 2 million years, while Pioneer 11 is headed for a star in Aquila that it should near in about 4 million years. Nothing like a cosmological time-scale to bring a sense of perspective to human events…

  • ljk August 14, 2006, 17:20

    Carl Sagan estimated that the Voyagers would last about 1 billion
    years in interstellar space before comsic dust and other elements
    wear them down to essentially scrap metal. I presume the two
    Pioneers will have similar life times.

    But that is still longer than anything manmade that will likely last
    on Earth. Even the Pyramids of Egypt will return to dust in a mere
    125,000 years.

  • Adam Crowl August 16, 2006, 2:46

    Hi Larry

    Where did you get this line…

    Even the Pyramids of Egypt will return to dust in a mere
    125,000 years.

    …it’s quite an interesting factoid, if true. Most sediment that has ever been laid down on Earth has been eroded back into being loose sediment. Only a tiny fraction becomes ‘permanent’ stone. And even that tends to be eroded away in time. ‘Temporary’ alien civilisations could have flourished for a brief span and then vanish away and we’d almost certainly never know. This has important implications for SETA.


  • ljk March 1, 2012, 9:47


    Ames Celebrates the 40th Anniversary of Pioneer


    Launched on March 2,1972, Pioneer 10 was the first spacecraft to travel through the Asteroid belt, and the first spacecraft to make direct observations and obtain close-up images of Jupiter.

    Famed as the most remote object ever made through most of its mission, Pioneer 10 traveled more than 8 billion miles through space in 25 years. (On Feb. 17, 1998, Voyager 1’s heliocentric radial distance equaled Pioneer 10 at 69.4 AU and thereafter exceeded Pioneer 10 at the rate of 1.02 AU per year.)

    Pioneer 10 made its closest encounter to Jupiter on Dec. 3, 1973, passing within 81,000 miles of the cloudtops. This historic event marked humans’ first approach to Jupiter and opened the way for exploration of the outer solar system – for Voyager to tour the outer planets, for Ulysses to break out of the ecliptic, for Galileo to investigate Jupiter and its satellites, and for Cassini to go to Saturn and probe Titan.

    During its Jupiter encounter, Pioneer 10 imaged the planet and its moons, and took measurements of Jupiter’s magnetosphere, radiation belts, magnetic field, atmosphere, and interior. These measurements of the intense radiation environment near Jupiter were crucial in designing the Voyager and Galileo spacecraft.

    Pioneer 10 made valuable scientific investigations in the outer regions of our solar system until the end of its science mission on March 31,1997. Pioneer 10’s weak signal continued to be tracked by the Deep Space Network (DSN) as part of an advanced concept study of communication technology supporting NASA’s future interstellar probe mission.

    After more than 30 years, it appears the venerable Pioneer 10 spacecraft has sent its last signal to Earth. Pioneer’s last, very weak signal was received Jan. 23, 2003. The power source on Pioneer 10 finally degraded to the point in 2003 where its signal to Earth dropped below the threshold for detection. NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) did not detect a signal during a contact attempt on Feb. 7, 2003. The previous three contacts, including the Jan. 23, 2003 signal, were very faint, with no telemetry received. The last time a Pioneer 10 contact returned telemetry data was April 27, 2002.

    Pioneer 10 will continue to coast silently as a ghost ship through deep space into interstellar space, heading generally for the red star Aldebaran, which forms the eye of Taurus (The Bull). Aldebaran is about 68 light years away and it will take Pioneer more than 2 million years to reach it.

    For more information about the Pioneer Project History, see:


    For more information about NASA Ames, see:


    Ruth Dasso Marlaire
    Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.