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Pioneer 4



Pioneer 4 was a spin stabilized spacecraft launched on a lunar flyby trajectory and into a heliocentric orbit making it the first US probe to escape from the Earth's gravity. It carried a payload similar to Pioneer 3: a lunar radiation environment experiment using a Geiger-Mueller tube detector and a lunar photography experiment. It passed within 60,000 km of the Moon's surface. However, Pioneer 4 did not come close enough to trigger the photoelectric sensor. No lunar radiation was detected. The spacecraft was still in solar orbit as of 1969.

Spacecraft and Subsystems

Pioneer 4 was a cone-shaped probe 51 cm high and 23 cm in diameter at its base. The cone was composed of a thin fiberglass shell coated with a gold wash to make it electrically conducting and painted with white stripes to maintain the temperature between 10 and 50 degrees C. At the tip of the cone was a small probe which combined with the cone itself to act as an antenna. At the base of the cone a ring of mercury batteries provided power. A photoelectric sensor protruded from the center of the ring. The sensor was designed with two photocells which would be triggered by the light of the Moon when the probe was within about 30,000 km of the Moon. At the center of the cone was a voltage supply tube and two Geiger-Mueller tubes. A transmitter with a mass of 0.5 kg delivered a phase-modulated signal of 0.1 W at a frequency of 960.05 MHz. The modulated carrier power was 0.08 W and the total effective radiated power 0.18 W. A despin mechanism consisted of two 7 gram weights which spooled out to the end of two 150 cm wires when triggered by a hydraulic timer 10 hours after launch. The weights were designed to slow the spacecraft spin from 400 rpm to 6 rpm and then weights and wires were released.

Mission Profile

After a successful launch Pioneer 4 achieved its primary objective (an Earth-Moon trajectory), returned radiation data and provided a valuable tracking exercise. The probe passed within 60,000 km of the Moon's surface (7.2 E, 5.7 S) on 4 March 1959 at 22:25 UT (5:25 p.m. EST) at a speed of 7,230 km/hr. The distance was not close enough to trigger the photoelectric sensor. The probe was tracked for 82 hours to a distance of 655,000 km and reached perihelion on 18 March 1959 at 01:00 UT. The cylindrical fourth stage casing (173 cm long, 15 cm diameter, 4.65 kg) went into orbit with the probe.

Alternate Names

  • 00113

Facts in Brief

Launch Date: 1959-03-03
Launch Vehicle: Juno 2 (Juno II)
Launch Site: Cape Canaveral, United States
Mass: 6.1 kg

Funding Agencies

  • Department of Defense-Department of the Army (United States)
  • NASA-Office of Space Science Applications (United States)


  • Planetary Science
  • Space Physics

Additional Information

Questions or comments about this spacecraft can be directed to: Dr. David R. Williams.


Selected References

Martin, B. D., Pioneer 4 lunar probe, a minimum-power FM/PM system design, JPL, Calif. Inst. Technol., TR 32-215, Pasadena, CA, Mar. 1962.

Reiff, G. A., Pioneer spacecraft program, Joint Natl. Meet. Am. Astronaut. Soc., (15th Annu.) Oper. Res. Soc. (35th Natl.), AAS. Paper 69-066, Denver, CO, June 1969.

Eimer, M., et al., Tracking the moon probes, Space Res., 518-531, 1960. (Proc. 1st Intern. Space Sci. Symp., Nice, France, Jan. 11-16, 1960).

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