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Robotic spacecraft

Robotic spacecraft

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A robotic spacecraft is a spacecraft
A spacecraft or spaceship is a craft or machine designed for spaceflight. Spacecraft are used for a variety of purposes, including communications, earth observation, meteorology, navigation, planetary exploration and transportation of humans and cargo....

 with no humans on board, that is usually under telerobotic control. A robotic spacecraft designed to make scientific research measurements is often called a space probe
Space probe
A robotic spacecraft is a spacecraft with no humans on board, that is usually under telerobotic control. A robotic spacecraft designed to make scientific research measurements is often called a space probe. Many space missions are more suited to telerobotic rather than crewed operation, due to...

. Many space missions are more suited to telerobotic rather than crewed
Human spaceflight
Human spaceflight is spaceflight with humans on the spacecraft. When a spacecraft is manned, it can be piloted directly, as opposed to machine or robotic space probes and remotely-controlled satellites....

 operation, due to lower cost and lower risk factors. In addition, some planetary destinations such as Venus
Venus is the second planet from the Sun, orbiting it every 224.7 Earth days. The planet is named after Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty. After the Moon, it is the brightest natural object in the night sky, reaching an apparent magnitude of −4.6, bright enough to cast shadows...

 or the vicinity of Jupiter
Jupiter is the fifth planet from the Sun and the largest planet within the Solar System. It is a gas giant with mass one-thousandth that of the Sun but is two and a half times the mass of all the other planets in our Solar System combined. Jupiter is classified as a gas giant along with Saturn,...

 are too hostile for human survival, given current technology. Outer planets such as Saturn
Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second largest planet in the Solar System, after Jupiter. Saturn is named after the Roman god Saturn, equated to the Greek Cronus , the Babylonian Ninurta and the Hindu Shani. Saturn's astronomical symbol represents the Roman god's sickle.Saturn,...

, Uranus
Uranus is the seventh planet from the Sun. It has the third-largest planetary radius and fourth-largest planetary mass in the Solar System. It is named after the ancient Greek deity of the sky Uranus , the father of Cronus and grandfather of Zeus...

, and Neptune
Neptune is the eighth and farthest planet from the Sun in the Solar System. Named for the Roman god of the sea, it is the fourth-largest planet by diameter and the third largest by mass. Neptune is 17 times the mass of Earth and is slightly more massive than its near-twin Uranus, which is 15 times...

 are too distant to reach with current crewed spaceflight technology, so telerobotic probes are the only way to explore them.

Many artificial satellite
In the context of spaceflight, a satellite is an object which has been placed into orbit by human endeavour. Such objects are sometimes called artificial satellites to distinguish them from natural satellites such as the Moon....

s are robotic spacecraft, as are many lander
Lander (spacecraft)
A lander is a spacecraft which descends toward and comes to rest on the surface of an astronomical body. For bodies with atmospheres, the landing is called atmospheric reentry and the lander descends as a re-entry vehicle...

s and rover
Rover (space exploration)
A rover is a space exploration vehicle designed to move across the surface of a planet or other astronomical body. Some rovers have been designed to transport members of a human spaceflight crew; others have been partially or fully autonomous robots...



The first space mission, Sputnik 1
Sputnik 1
Sputnik 1 ) was the first artificial satellite to be put into Earth's orbit. It was launched into an elliptical low Earth orbit by the Soviet Union on 4 October 1957. The unanticipated announcement of Sputnik 1s success precipitated the Sputnik crisis in the United States and ignited the Space...

, was an artificial satellite put into Earth orbit by the USSR on 4 October 1957. On 3 November 1957, the USSR orbited Sputnik 2
Sputnik 2
Sputnik 2 , or Prosteyshiy Sputnik 2 ), was the second spacecraft launched into Earth orbit, on November 3, 1957, and the first to carry a living animal, a dog named Laika. Sputnik 2 was a 4-meter high cone-shaped capsule with a base diameter of 2 meters...

, the first to carry a living animal into space – a dog
Laika was a Soviet space dog that became the first animal to orbit the Earth – as well as the first animal to die in orbit.As little was known about the impact of spaceflight on living creatures at the time of Laika's mission, and the technology to de-orbit had not yet been developed, there...


Only seven other countries have successfully launched orbital missions using their own vehicles: USA (1958), France (1965), Japan (1970), China (1970), the United Kingdom (1971), India (1981), Israel (1988).


In spacecraft design, the United States Air Force
United States Air Force
The United States Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the American uniformed services. Initially part of the United States Army, the USAF was formed as a separate branch of the military on September 18, 1947 under the National Security Act of...

 considers a vehicle to consist of the mission payload and the bus
Satellite bus
A satellite bus or spacecraft bus is the general model on which multiple-production satellite spacecraft are often based. The bus is the infrastructure of a spacecraft, usually providing locations for the payload .They are most commonly used for geosynchronous satellites, particularly...

 (or platform). The bus provides physical structure, thermal control, electrical power, attitude control and telemetry, tracking and commanding.

JPL divides the "flight system" of a spacecraft into subsystems. These include:


This is the physical backbone structure. It:
  • provides overall mechanical integrity of the spacecraft
  • ensures spacecraft components are supported and can withstand launch loads

Data handling

This is sometimes referred to as the command and data subsystem. It is often responsible for:
  • command sequence storage
  • maintaining the spacecraft clock
  • collecting and reporting spacecraft telemetry data (e.g. spacecraft health)
  • collecting and reporting mission data (e.g. photographic images)

Attitude and articulation control

This system is responsible for the spacecraft's orientation in space (attitude) and the positioning of movable parts (articulation). Attitude and articulation are controlled in order to:
  • point an antenna at Earth for communications
  • point onboard instruments for collection of data (possibly in some other direction)
  • adjust for the heating effects of sunlight
  • provide guidance during propulsive maneuvers


Components in the telecommunications subsystem include radio antennas, transmitters and receivers. These may be used to communicate with ground stations on Earth, or with other spacecraft.

Electrical power

The supply of electric power on spacecraft come from photovoltaic (solar) cells or from a radioisotope thermoelectric generator
Radioisotope thermoelectric generator
A radioisotope thermoelectric generator is an electrical generator that obtains its power from radioactive decay. In such a device, the heat released by the decay of a suitable radioactive material is converted into electricity by the Seebeck effect using an array of thermocouples.RTGs can be...

. Other components of the subsystem include batteries for storing power and distribution circuitry that connects components to the power sources.

Temperature control and protection from the environment

Spacecraft are often protected from temperature fluctuations with insulation. Some spacecraft use mirrors and sunshades for additional protection from solar heating. They also often need shielding from micrometeoroid
A micrometeoroid is a tiny meteoroid; a small particle of rock in space, usually weighing less than a gram. A micrometeor or micrometeorite is such a particle that enters the Earth's atmosphere or falls to Earth.-Scientific interest:...

s and orbital debris.

Mechanical devices

Mechanical components often need to be moved for deployment after launch or prior to landing. In addition to the use of motors, many one-time movements are controlled by pyrotechnic devices.


Robotic spacecraft use telemetry
Telemetry is a technology that allows measurements to be made at a distance, usually via radio wave transmission and reception of the information. The word is derived from Greek roots: tele = remote, and metron = measure...

 to radio back to Earth acquired data and vehicle status information. Although generally referred to as "remotely-controlled" or "telerobotic", the earliest orbital spacecraft – such as Sputnik 1 and Explorer 1 – did not receive control signals from Earth. Soon after these first spacecraft, command systems were developed to allow remote control from the ground. Increased autonomy
Autonomous robot
Autonomous robots are robots that can perform desired tasks in unstructured environments without continuous human guidance. Many kinds of robots have some degree of autonomy. Different robots can be autonomous in different ways...

 is important for distant probes where the light travel time prevents rapid decision and control from Earth. Newer probes such as Cassini–Huygens and the Mars Exploration Rovers are highly autonomous and use on-board computers to operate independently for extended periods of time.

Space probes

A space probe is a scientific space exploration mission in which a spacecraft leaves Earth and explores space. It may approach the Moon, enter interplanetary, flyby or orbit other bodies, or approach interstellar space.

Robotic spacecraft service vehicles

  • MDA Space Infrastructure Servicing vehicle — an in-space refueling depot
    Propellant depot
    An orbital propellant depot is a cache of propellant that is placed on an orbit about the Earth or another body to allow spacecraft to be fuelled in space. Launching a spacecraft separately from some of its propellant enables missions with more massive payloads...

     and service spacecraft for communication satellites in geosynchronous orbit
    Geosynchronous orbit
    A geosynchronous orbit is an orbit around the Earth with an orbital period that matches the Earth's sidereal rotation period...

    . Launch planned for 2015.

  • Mission Extension Vehicle
    Mission Extension Vehicle
    The Mission Extension Vehicle is a spacecraft concept proposed by ViviSat, a 50/50 joint venture of aerospace firms U.S. Space and ATK, to operate as a small-scale in-space satellite-refueling spacecraft.-Technical capabilities and competition:...

     is an alternative approach that does not utilize in-space RCS
    Reaction control system
    A reaction control system is a subsystem of a spacecraft whose purpose is attitude control and steering by the use of thrusters. An RCS system is capable of providing small amounts of thrust in any desired direction or combination of directions. An RCS is also capable of providing torque to allow...

     fuel transfer. Rather, it would connect to the target satellite in the same way as MDA SIS, and then use "its own thrusters to supply attitude control for the target."

See also

  • Unmanned resupply spacecraft
    Unmanned resupply spacecraft
    Unmanned resupply spacecraft are a special kind of robotic spacecraft that operate autonomously without a human crew, designed to support space station operation...

  • Geosynchronous satellite
    Geosynchronous satellite
    A geosynchronous Satellite is a satellite whose orbit on the Earth repeats regularly over points on the Earth over time. If such a satellite's orbit lies over the equator, the orbit is circular and its angular velocity is the same as the earth's, then it is called a geostationary satellite...

  • Human versus robotic spaceflight
  • Manned space mission
  • Satellite
    In the context of spaceflight, a satellite is an object which has been placed into orbit by human endeavour. Such objects are sometimes called artificial satellites to distinguish them from natural satellites such as the Moon....

  • Space exploration
    Space exploration
    Space exploration is the use of space technology to explore outer space. Physical exploration of space is conducted both by human spaceflights and by robotic spacecraft....

  • Timeline of Solar System exploration
    Timeline of solar system exploration
    This is a timeline of Solar System exploration ordered by date of spacecraft launch. It includes:*All spacecraft that have left Earth orbit for the purposes of Solar System exploration , including lunar probes....

  • Space observatory
    Space observatory
    A space observatory is any instrument in outer space which is used for observation of distant planets, galaxies, and other outer space objects...

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