NASA Logo, National Aeronautics and Space Administration
NASA Space Science Data Coordinated Archive Header

Pioneer P-3



Pioneer P-3 (Atlas-Able 4) was intended to be a lunar orbiter probe, but the mission failed shortly after launch. The objectives were to place a highly instrumented probe in lunar orbit, to investigate the environment between the Earth and Moon, and to develop technology for controlling and maneuvering spacecraft from Earth. It was equipped to take images of the lunar surface with a television-like system, estimate the Moon's mass and topography of the poles, record the distribution and velocity of micrometeorites, and study radiation, magnetic fields, and low frequency electromagnetic waves in space. A mid-course propulsion system and injection rocket would have been the first U.S. self-contained propulsion system capable of operation many months after launch at great distances from Earth and the first U.S. tests of maneuvering a satellite in space.

Mission Profile

The spacecraft was launched on an Air Force-Convair Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile coupled to Thor-Able upper stages including an Able x 248 rocket third stage. The plastic payload shroud broke away 45 seconds after launch, subjecting the payload and third stage rocket to critical aerodynamic loads. At 104 seconds after launch communications with the upper stages was lost and the payload was stripped off followed by the third stage. Telemetry indicated the first and second stages continued as programmed.

Spacecraft and Subsystems

Pioneer P-3 was a 1 meter diameter sphere with a propulsion system mounted on the bottom giving a total length of 1.4 meters. The mass of the structure and aluminum alloy shell was 25.3 kg and the propulsion units 88.4 kg. Four solar panels, each 60 x 60 cm and containing 2200 solar cells in 22 100-cell nodules, extended from the sides of the spherical shell in a "paddle-wheel" configuration with a total span of about 2.7 meters. The solar panels charged chemical batteries. Inside the shell, a large spherical hydrazine tank made up most of the volume, topped by two smaller spherical nitrogen tanks and a 90 N injection rocket to slow the spacecraft down to go into lunar orbit, which was designed to be capable of firing twice during the mission. Attached to the bottom of the sphere was a 90 N vernier rocket for mid-course propulsion and lunar orbit maneuvers which could be fired four times.

Around the upper hemisphere of the hydrazine tank was a ring-shaped instrument platform which held the batteries in two packs, two 5 W UHF transmitters and diplexers, logic modules for scientific instruments, two command receivers, decoders, a buffer/amplifier, three converters, a telebit, a command box, and most of the scientific instruments. Two dipole UHF antennas protruded from the top of the sphere on either side of the injection rocket nozzle. Two dipole UHF antennas and a long VLF antenna protruded from the bottom of the sphere.

Thermal control was planned to be achieved by a large number of small "propeller blade" devices on the surface of the sphere. The blades themselves were made of reflective material and consist of four vanes which were flush against the surface, covering a black heat-absorbing pattern painted on the sphere. A thermally sensitive coil was attached to the blades in such a way that low temperatures within the satellite would cause the coil to contract and rotate the blades and expose the heat absorbing surface, and high temperatures would cause the blades to cover the black patterns. Square heat-sink units were also mounted on the surface of the sphere to help dissipate heat from the interior.

Scientific Instrumentation

The scientific instruments consisted of an ion chamber and Geiger-Mueller tube to measure total radiation flux, a proportional radiation counter telescope to measure high energy radiation, a scintillation counter to monitor low-energy radiation, a VLF receiver for natural radio waves, a transponder to study electron density, and part of the television facsimile system and flux-gate and search coil magnetometers mounted on the instrument platform. The television camera pointed through a small hole in the sphere between two of the solar panel mounts. The micrometeorite detector was mounted on the sphere as well. The total mass of the science package including electronics and power supply was 55 kg.

Alternate Names

  • Atlas Able 4
  • Pioneer-X

Facts in Brief

Launch Date: 1959-11-26
Launch Vehicle: Atlas-Able
Launch Site: Cape Canaveral, United States
Mass: 168.7 kg

Funding Agency

  • NASA-Office of Space Science Applications (United States)


  • Astronomy
  • Planetary Science
  • Space Physics

Additional Information

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



NameRoleOriginal AffiliationE-mail
Mr. Charles F. HallProject ManagerNASA Ames Research Center 

Selected References

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.

Attempt to launch Lunar-orbiting payloads fails, Space Technol., 3, No. 1, 24-25, Jan. 1960.

[] NASA Logo -