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.
WHAT MATH ERROR WAS ACCIDENTALLY BUILT INTO THE PIONEER PLAQUES?