Uncrewed spacecraft

Robotic spacecraft or uncrewed spacecraft are spacecraft without people onboard. Uncrewed spacecraft may have varying levels of autonomy from human input; they may be remote controlled, remote guided or even autonomous, meaning they have a pre-programmed list of operations, which they will execute unless otherwise instructed. A robotic spacecraft designed to make scientific research measurements is often called a space probe or space observatory.

Top: The unmanned resupply vessel Progress M-06M (left). Galileo space probe, prior to departure from Earth orbit in 1989 (right).
Bottom: Spaceplane Buran was launched, orbited Earth, and landed as an uncrewed spacecraft in 1988 (left). Model of James Webb Space Telescope (right).

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. Telerobotics also allows exploration of regions that are vulnerable to contamination by Earth micro-organisms since spacecraft can be sterilized. Humans can not be sterilized in the same way as a spaceship, as they coexist with numerous micro-organisms, and these micro-organisms are also hard to contain within a spaceship or spacesuit.

The first uncrewed space mission was Sputnik, launched October 4, 1957 to orbit the Earth. Nearly all satellites, landers and rovers are robotic spacecraft. Not every uncrewed spacecraft is a robotic spacecraft; for example, a reflector ball is a non-robotic uncrewed spacecraft. Space missions where other animals but no humans are on-board are called uncrewed missions.

Many habitable spacecraft also have varying levels of robotic features. For example, the space stations Salyut 7 and Mir, and the International Space Station module Zarya, were capable of remote guided station-keeping and docking maneuvers with both resupply craft and new modules. Uncrewed resupply spacecraft are increasingly used for crewed space stations.


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This article uses material from the Wikipedia article Uncrewed spacecraft, and is written by contributors. Text is available under a CC BY-SA 4.0 International License; additional terms may apply. Images, videos and audio are available under their respective licenses.