Spaceflight Insider

Our SpaceFlight Heritage: The age of automated sentinels begins

Robotic probes: United Launch Alliance Atlas V 411 Kennedy Space Center Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) photo credit Michael Howard SpaceFlight Insider

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx prior to encapsulation in the Atlas V payload fairing. Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — With NASA less than a day away from seeing their OSIRIS-REx spacecraft begin its voyage to asteroid Bennu, a brief review of some of the U.S. space agency’s many robotic accomplishments is in order. 

NASA began expanding humanity’s knowledge of Earth’s local cosmic neighborhood with the successful launch of the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958. Since then, NASA’s use of robotic probes has soared to extraordinary heights with the launch of over a thousand uncrewed spacecraft bringing distant celestial bodies within reach.

From left to right: Dr. William H. Pickering, Dr. James A. van Allen, and Dr. Wernher von Braun holding a mockup of robotic probe Explorer 1. Photo Credit NASA

Dr. William H. Pickering, left, Dr. James A. Van Allen, center, and Dr. Wernher von Braun hold a full-scale model of Explorer 1. Photo Credit NASA

Equipping a spacecraft with the necessary life support equipment to ensure human survival in the harsh and unforgiving environment of space is no easy task and can be costly in terms of money, time, and even human lives. The introduction of robotic spacecraft that can be teleoperated from the safety of Earth, or even operate autonomously, has enabled humans to gain invaluable knowledge of far-off places like Mars or Saturn.

By equipping these spacecraft with technology solely aimed at reaching a particular destination and gathering scientific data, information about the Solar System has been gained that would never have been attainable with the limits of human exploration.

Past Missions:

Explorer 1: Launched on Jan. 31, 1958, this satellite marked the beginning of both U.S. space exploration and the U.S. use of unmanned systems in space. This craft was designed to measure the radiation environment in Earth orbit. This resulted in the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belt.

Surveyor 1: Launched on May 30, 1966, from Cape Canaveral Air force Station (CCAFS), this robotic spacecraft was the first of seven robots to land on the Moon to gather essential data in advance of NASA’s Apollo program that would successfully place a man on the Moon a few years later.

Viking 1: Launched on Aug. 20, 1975, the first spacecraft to successfully land on Mars and perform its mission, took 11 months to reach its destination – Chryse Planitia. It was sent to study the Martian surface and atmosphere while searching for signs of life.

Ongoing Missions:

Cassini-Huygens: Launched on Oct. 15, 1997, this orbiter was created as a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Italian Space Agency in order to study Saturn and its moons. Having completed its primary mission in June of 2008, the spacecraft is currently undergoing its second and final extended mission which will go through September 2017.

GRACE: An acronym for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, this spacecraft was launched on March 17, 2002, into a polar orbit from Russia to study the changes in Earth’s oceans and ice sheets.

MSL: NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, the Curiosity rover, launched on Nov. 26, 2011, and is equipped with a number of scientific instruments aimed at determining if Mars was, or is currently, capable of supporting microbial life. It landed Aug. 6, 2012, using an ambitious “sky crane” technique. NASA plans to use this design for another rover in 2020.

NASA's ARRM hybrid concept capture

An artist’s rendition of an Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) spacecraft retrieving a boulder from a larger asteroid. Image Credit: NASA

Future Missions:

InSight: This lander is set to launch on May 5, 2018, and will land Nov. 26, 2018, on the surface of Mars. Equipped with a drill and seismometer, it will investigate the interior structure of the Red Planet.

Euclid: An orbiter that will be launched from CCAFS sometime in 2020, this unmanned spacecraft is being designed to investigate dark matter and dark energy. It is an ESA project being developed with contributions from NASA.

ARRM: An acronym for Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission, this spacecraft is expected to launch late in 2021. It is being designed to collect capture and bring a small near-Earth asteroid – or large bolder – into lunar orbit. Once there, this object could be analyzed by a crewed Orion mission sometime in the middle of the 2020s.

Of course, NASA is not the only space agency to successfully launch robotic missions to the Moon or Mars. In 2013, China successfully sent the Yutu rover to the lunar surface. Then, in October 2014, China’s State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense said the nation would be launching their fourth lunar probe sometime in 2017. China hopes to gather samples from the lunar surface and return them to Earth.

While China is currently focusing on the Moon, Russia, and ESA are focusing on the Red Planet. In March of this year, an orbiter/test lander combo from the ESA-Russia ExoMars program, the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli lander, respectively, was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

ESA and Russia plan to launch the second part of the ExoMars program in July of 2020. Some six months later, a Russian-build lander platform with an ESA-built rover on top is expected to touchdown on Mars.

The ability of these spacecraft to spend months and years gathering pictures and samples of the Solar System has made them an essential element of space exploration. As robotic technology continues to advance, these spacecraft will unquestionably be at the forefront of future expeditions into the final frontier.



Alexis Creedy is a SpaceFlight Insider intern from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, where she is working towards her Master’s degree in Unmanned Systems with a concentration in Human Factors. Although Alexis is relatively new to the Space Coast of Florida, she has always been interested in all things space. Creedy is excited about the space-themed opportunities that the area and her field of study has to offer. Alexis holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and plans to use both degrees and her internship experience to forge a career path that contributes to the incredible developments and accomplishments of the unmanned sector.

Reader Comments

As one who has been around since Sputnik, the achievements of the space age are a wondrous testament to the human spirit of exploration. To see the surfaces of the Moon, Mars, Venus and Titan are truly mind-boggling. It will only get better and more interesting.

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