SPC06 - The Pioneer Venus Spacecraft - The First Microprocessor in Space


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The Pioneer Venus mission was part of NASA's Pioneer program and aimed to study Venus's atmosphere and surface. It had two main parts: the Pioneer Venus Orbiter (Pioneer 12) and the Pioneer Venus Multiprobe (Pioneer 13). The mission's goal was to gather detailed information about Venus.

The Pioneer Venus Orbiter launched on May 20, 1978. Its job was to map Venus's surface using radar and study the planet's upper atmosphere and ionosphere. With its scientific instruments, the orbiter successfully mapped 93% of Venus's surface, revealing its topography. It also provided important data on the planet's atmosphere, cloud structure, and how the solar wind interacts with Venus's ionosphere.

The Large Neutral Mass Spectrometer (LNMS) on the Pioneer Venus Multiprobe (housed in the Large Probe) was crucial for analyzing Venus's atmosphere. Its main job was to measure the abundance and types of neutral (uncharged) atoms and molecules in the atmosphere as the probe descended toward the planet's surface. The LNMS worked by ionizing the neutral particles in the atmosphere and then measuring the mass-to-charge ratio of the resulting ions. This process helped identify the masses of different atmospheric particles and determine their chemical composition. As the probe traveled through Venus's dense atmosphere, the LNMS provided real-time data on the concentrations of various gases, including noble gases and major atmospheric constituents.

The LNMS's capabilities were powered by an Intel 4004 microprocessor, the first microprocessor and the first used in space. The 4004 allowed the spacecraft to collect a full range of data every minute, covering the entire mass range of 200 atomic mass units (amu). It chose the most accurate data point from several readings and adjusted for any calibration changes, ensuring that the data sent back was highly reliable. Without the microprocessor, the spacecraft could only send data once for every 10 kilometers it descended. However, with the microprocessor, it could take and send readings for every 1-kilometer change in altitude. An Intel 4004 is included in the artwork.