A robotic spacecraft is an uncrewed spacecraft, 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 lower cost and lower risk factors. In addition, some planetary destinations such as Venus or the vicinity of Jupiter are too hostile for human survival, given current technology. Outer planets such as Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are too distant to reach with current crewed spacecraft technology, so telerobotic probes are the only way to explore them.
The first robotic spacecraft was launched by the Soviet Union (USSR) on 22 July 1951, a suborbital flight carrying two dogs Dezik and Tsygan. Four other such flights were made through the fall of 1951.
The first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was put into a 215-by-939-kilometer (116 by 507 nmi) Earth orbit by the USSR on 4 October 1957. On 3 November 1957, the USSR orbited Sputnik 2. Weighing 113 kilograms (249 lb), Sputnik 2 carried the first living animal into orbit, the dog Laika. Since the satellite was not designed to detach from its launch vehicle's upper stage, the total mass in orbit was 508.3 kilograms (1,121 lb).
In a close race with the Soviets, the United States launched its first artificial satellite, Explorer 1, into a 193-by-1,373-nautical-mile (357 by 2,543 km) orbit on 31 January 1958. Explorer I was a 80.75-inch (205.1 cm) long by 6.00-inch (15.2 cm) diameter cylinder weighing 30.8 pounds (14.0 kg), compared to Sputnik 1, a 58-centimeter (23 in) sphere which weighed 83.6 kilograms (184 lb). Explorer 1 carried sensors which confirmed the existence of the Van Allen belts, a major scientific discovery at the time, while Sputnik 1 carried no scientific sensors. On 17 March 1958, the US orbited its second satellite, Vanguard 1, which was about the size of a grapefruit, and remains in a 360-by-2,080-nautical-mile (670 by 3,850 km) orbit as of 2016.
Nine other countries have successfully launched satellites using their own launch vehicles: France (1965), Japan and China (1970), the United Kingdom (1971), India (1980), Israel (1988), Iran (2009), North Korea (2012), and New Zealand (2018).
In spacecraft design, the United States Air Force considers a vehicle to consist of the mission payload and the bus (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
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 determination and control
This system is mainly responsible for the correct spacecraft's orientation in space (attitude) despite external disturbance-gravity gradient effects, magnetic-field torques, solar radiation and aerodynamic drag; in addition it may be required to reposition movable parts, such as antennas and solar arrays.
Landing on hazardous terrain
In planetary exploration missions involving robotic spacecraft, there are three key parts in the processes of landing on the surface of the planet to ensure a safe and successful landing. This process includes an entry into the planetary gravity field and atmosphere, a descent through that atmosphere towards an intended/targeted region of scientific value, and a safe landing that guarantees the integrity of the instrumentation on the craft is preserved. While the robotic spacecraft is going through those parts, it must also be capable of estimating its position compared to the surface in order to ensure reliable control of itself and its ability to maneuver well. The robotic spacecraft must also efficiently perform hazard assessment and trajectory adjustments in real time to avoid hazards. To achieve this, the robotic spacecraft requires accurate knowledge of where the spacecraft is located relative to the surface (localization), what may pose as hazards from the terrain (hazard assessment), and where the spacecraft should presently be headed (hazard avoidance). Without the capability for operations for localization, hazard assessment, and avoidance, the robotic spacecraft becomes unsafe and can easily enter dangerous situations such as surface collisions, undesirable fuel consumption levels, and/or unsafe maneuvers.
Entry, descent, and landing
Integrated sensing incorporates an image transformation algorithm to interpret the immediate imagery land data, perform a real-time detection and avoidance of terrain hazards that may impede safe landing, and increase the accuracy of landing at a desired site of interest using landmark localization techniques. Integrated sensing completes these tasks by relying on pre-recorded information and cameras to understand its location and determine its position and whether it is correct or needs to make any corrections (localization). The cameras are also used to detect any possible hazards whether it is increased fuel consumption or it is a physical hazard such as a poor landing spot in a crater or cliff side that would make landing very not ideal (hazard assessment).
The supply of electric power on spacecraft generally come from photovoltaic (solar) cells or from a radioisotope thermoelectric generator. 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 micrometeoroids and orbital debris.
Spacecraft propulsion is a method that allows a spacecraft to travel through space by generating thrust to push it forward. However, there is not one universally used propulsion system: monopropellant, bipropellant, ion propulsion, etc. Each propulsion system generates thrust in slightly different ways with each system having its own advantages and disadvantages. But, most spacecraft propulsion today is based on rocket engines. The general idea behind rocket engines is that when an oxidizer meets the fuel source, there is explosive release of energy and heat at high speeds, which propels the spacecraft forward. This happens due to one basic principle known as Newton's Third Law. According to Newton, "to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." As the energy and heat is being released from the back of the spacecraft, gas particles are being pushed around to allow the spacecraft to propel forward. The main reason behind the usage of rocket engine today is because rockets are the most powerful form of propulsion there is.
For a propulsion system to work, there is usually an oxidizer line and a fuel line. This way, the spacecraft propulsion is controlled. But in a monopropellant propulsion, there is no need for an oxidizer line and only requires the fuel line. This works due to the oxidizer being chemically bonded into the fuel molecule itself. But for the propulsion system to be controlled, the combustion of the fuel can only occur due to a presence of a catalyst. This is quite advantageous due to making the rocket engine lighter and cheaper, easy to control, and more reliable. But, the downfall is that the chemical is very dangerous to manufacture, store, and transport.
A bipropellant propulsion system is a rocket engine that uses a liquid propellent. This means both the oxidizer and fuel line are in liquid states. This system is unique because it requires no ignition system, the two liquids would spontaneously combust as soon as they come into contact with each other and produces the propulsion to push the ship forward. The main benefit for having this technology is because that these kinds of liquids have relatively high density, which allows the volume of the propellent tank to be small, therefore increasing space efficacy. The downside is the same as that of monopropellant propulsion system: very dangerous to manufacture, store, and transport.
An ion propulsion system is a type of engine that generates thrust by the means of electron bombardment or the acceleration of ions. By shooting high-energy electrons to a propellant atom (neutrally charge), it removes electrons from the propellant atom and this results the propellant atom becoming a positively charged atom. The positively charged ions are guided to pass through positively charged grids that contains thousands of precise aligned holes are running at high voltages. Then, the aligned positively charged ions accelerates through a negative charged accelerator grid that further increases the speed of the ions up to 90,000 mph. The momentum of these positively charged ions provides the thrust to propel the spacecraft forward. The advantage of having this kind of propulsion is that it is incredibly efficient in maintaining constant velocity, which is needed for deep-space travel. However, the amount of thrust produced is extremely low and that it needs a lot of electrical power to operate.
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 vs. uncrewed spacecraft
Robotic spacecraft are specifically designed system for a specific hostile environment. Due to their specification for a particular environment, it varies greatly in complexity and capabilities. While an uncrewed spacecraft is a spacecraft without personnel or crew and is operated by automatic (proceeds with an action without human intervention) or remote control (with human intervention). The term 'uncrewed spacecraft' does not imply that the spacecraft is robotic.
Robotic spacecraft use telemetry 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 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.
A space probe is a robotic spacecraft that does not orbit Earth, but instead, explores further into outer space. A space probe may approach the Moon; travel through interplanetary space; flyby, orbit, or land on other planetary bodies; or enter interstellar space.
An example of a fully robotic spacecraft in the modern world would be SpaceX's Dragon. The SpaceX Dragon is a robotic spacecraft designed to send not only cargo to low Earth orbit, but also humans as well. The SpaceX Dragon's total height is 7.2 m (23.6 ft) with a diameter of 3.7 m (12 ft). The maximum launch payload mass is 6,000 kg (13,228 lbs) with a maximum return mass of 3,000 kg (6,614 lbs), along with a maximum launch payload volume of 25m^3 (883 ft^3) and a maximum return payload volume of 11m^3 (388 ft^3). The maximum endurance of the Dragon in space is two years.
In 2012 the SpaceX Dragon made history by becoming the first commercial robotic spacecraft to deliver cargo to the International Space Station and to safely return cargo to Earth in the same trip, something previously achieved only by governments. Currently the Dragon is meant to transfer cargo because of its capability of returning significant amounts of cargo to Earth despite it originally being designed to carry humans.
Robotic spacecraft service vehicles
- MDA Space Infrastructure Servicing vehicle — an in-space refueling depot and service spacecraft for communication satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Launch planned for 2015.
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ViviSat, a new 50-50 joint venture of U.S. Space and ATK, is marketing a satellite-refueling spacecraft that connects to a target spacecraft using the same probe-in-the-kick-motor approach as MDA, but does not transfer its fuel. Instead, the vehicle becomes a new fuel tank, using its own thrusters to supply attitude control for the target. ... [the ViviSat] concept is not as far along as MDA.