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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 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 spaceflight technology, so telerobotic probes are the only way to explore them.

Many artificial satellites are robotic spacecraft, as are many landers and rovers.


The first space mission, Sputnik 1, was an artificial satellite put into Earth orbit by the Soviet Union on 4 October 1957. On 3 November 1957, the Soviets orbited Sputnik 2, the first to carry a living animal into space a dog.

The United States achieved its first successful space probe launch with the orbit of Explorer 1 on 31 January 1958. Explorer 1 weighed less than 14 kilograms compared to 83.6 kg and 508.3 kg for Sputniks 1 and 2 respectively. Nonetheless, Explorer 1 detected a narrow band of radiation surrounding the Earth, named the Van Allen belts after the scientist whose equipment detected it.

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

Most American space probe missions have been coordinated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and European missions by the European Space Operations Centre, part of the European Space Agency (ESA). ESA has conducted relatively fewer space exploration missions in the past (one example is the Giotto mission, which encountered comet Halley), but have launched several interplanetary spacecraft in recent years (e.g. Rosetta space probe, Mars Express, Venus Express). ESA has, however, launched many spacecraft to carry out astronomy, and is a collaborator with NASA on the Hubble Space Telescope. There have been many successful Russian space missions. There have also been a few Japanese, Chinese and Indian missions.


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.[1]


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.

List of space probes

This is a condensed version of the more detailed List of Solar System probes.

Lunar probes

Mars probes

See also: Exploration of Mars

Venus probes

Comet and asteroid probes

Solar observation probes

Other solar system probes

  • Zond program Soviet flyby missions to the Moon, Venus, and Mars
  • Mariner program US Mercury, Venus and Mars flybys
  • MESSENGER US Mercury orbiter, launched 2004
  • New Horizons launched on January 19, 2006 First probe to visit Pluto (in July 2015)
  • Dawn (spacecraft) launched on September 27, 2007 First probe to visit Ceres and Vesta (in 2011 and 2009 respectively)


See also

External links





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