After Hours

Geek Trivia: What math error was accidentally built into the Pioneer Plaques?

Despite the extraordinary intellects working on the Pioneer Plaques, a math error crept into the design -- one that might prevent our future alien overlords from locating Earth.

Ten years ago today -- April 27, 2002 -- NASA received the final burst of telemetry from one of the most influential and invaluable space probes ever launched by humankind: Pioneer 10. For those keeping score at home, Pioneer 10 was the first human probe to pass through the local asteroid belt, the first probe to fly by Jupiter, and the first to reach escape velocity sufficient to escape the solar system.

For the record, despite being often mislabeled as such, Pioneer 10 is not the first man-made object to leave the solar system -- because it hasn't left the solar system. It was the first human creation to pass beyond the orbit of the planets, but that's a long way from moving past the Kuiper Belt, Oort Cloud, or heliopause.

Pioneer 10 was, however, the first space probe to carry an explicit message from humanity to any potential extraterrestrial intelligences that might encounter the craft. The Pioneer Plaque, which was affixed to Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 and inspired the later Voyager Golden Records, was created by ingenious astroscientists Carl Sagan and Frank Drake to alert the cosmos to the existence of humanity and give easily decodable directions back to planet Earth.

Unfortunately, despite the extraordinary intellects working on the Pioneer Plaque, a certain math error crept into the design -- one that might prevent our future alien overlords from locating the planet we call home.


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Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...


Besides, any advanced beings can probably trace the path of the probe to find its origins or at least get close.


"Hang a left, relatively speaking, at Alpha Centauri" should read "hand a right, aka your other left."


This is not the first time, but fortunately it is not as critical as it is embarrassing. I believe it was Kepler who studied the orbit of Mars and made several conclusions. One conclusion was that the orbit was an elipse. Scientists have recalculated Mars orbit and found that Kepler was off a bit but his conclusions were accurate. The more embarrassing math problem and Mars was a probe that failed to land because someone forgot to keep the same standard (kilometers or miles) in calculating the course.

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