September 1, 1979 – The American Pioneer Eleven passes the planet Saturn, becoming the first spacecraft to visit the ringed planet, albeit at a distance of 21,000 kilometers.
On this date twenty years ago, September 1, 1979, the robotic probe Pioneer 11 made the first flyby of the planet Saturn, thanks to an impressive gravity boost from its encounter with Jupiter in late 1974.
Though its images would not match in quality with the ones taken by Voyager 1 and 2 in the next two years, Pioneer 11 was a true pathfinder for those more sophisticated explorers and all other space vessels to follow.
To quote from the main Pioneer Web site:
“Pioneer 11 flew within 13,000 miles of Saturn and took the first close-up pictures of the planet. Instruments located two previously undiscovered small moons and an additional ring, charted Saturn’s magnetosphere and magnetic field, and found its planet-size moon, Titan, to be too cold for life. Hurtling underneath the ring plane, Pioneer 11 sent back amazing pictures of Saturn’s rings. The rings, which normally seem bright when observed from Earth, appeared dark in the Pioneer pictures, and the dark gaps in the rings seen from Earth appeared as bright rings.”