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A spacecraft is a vehicle or machine designed to fly in outer space. A type of artificial satellite, spacecraft are used for a variety of purposes, including communications, Earth observation, meteorology, navigation, space colonization, planetary exploration, and transportation of humans and cargo. All spacecraft except single-stage-to-orbit vehicles cannot get into space on their own, and require a launch vehicle (carrier rocket).
On a sub-orbital spaceflight, a space vehicle enters space and then returns to the surface, without having gained sufficient energy or velocity to make a full orbit of the Earth. For orbital spaceflights, spacecraft enter closed orbits around the Earth or around other celestial bodies. Spacecraft used for human spaceflight carry people on board as crew or passengers from start or on orbit (space stations) only, whereas those used for robotic space missions operate either autonomously or telerobotically. Robotic spacecraft used to support scientific research are space probes. Robotic spacecraft that remain in orbit around a planetary body are artificial satellites. To date, only a handful of interstellar probes, such as Pioneer 10 and 11 , Voyager 1 and 2 , and New Horizons , are on trajectories that leave the Solar System.
Orbital spacecraft may be recoverable or not. Most are not. Recoverable spacecraft may be subdivided by method of reentry to Earth into non-winged space capsules and winged spaceplanes. Recoverable spacecraft may be reusable (can be launched again or several times, like the SpaceX Dragon and the Space Shuttle orbiters) or expendable (like the Soyuz). In recent years, we are seeing more space agencies tending towards reusable spacecraft.
Humanity has achieved space flight but only a few nations have the technology for orbital launches: Russia (RSA or "Roscosmos"), the United States (NASA), the member states of the European Space Agency (ESA), Japan (JAXA), China (CNSA), India (ISRO), Taiwan(National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology, Taiwan National Space Organization (NSPO), Israel (ISA), Iran (ISA), and North Korea (NADA). In addition, several private companies have developed or are developing the technology for orbital launches, independently from government agencies. The most prominent examples of such companies are SpaceX and Blue Origin.
A German V-2 became the first spacecraft when it reached an altitude of 189 km in June 1944 in Peenemünde, Germany. Sputnik 1 was the first artificial satellite. It was launched into an elliptical low Earth orbit (LEO) by the Soviet Union on 4 October 1957. The launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments; while the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the Space Age. Apart from its value as a technological first, Sputnik 1 also helped to identify the upper atmospheric layer's density, through measuring the satellite's orbital changes. It also provided data on radio-signal distribution in the ionosphere. Pressurized nitrogen in the satellite's false body provided the first opportunity for meteoroid detection. Sputnik 1 was launched during the International Geophysical Year from Site No.1/5, at the 5th Tyuratam range, in Kazakh SSR (now at the Baikonur Cosmodrome). The satellite traveled at 29,000 kilometres per hour (18,000 mph), taking 96.2 minutes to complete an orbit, and emitted radio signals at 20.005 and 40.002 MHz
While Sputnik 1 was the first spacecraft to orbit the Earth, other man-made objects had previously reached an altitude of 100 km, which is the height required by the international organization Fédération Aéronautique Internationale to count as a spaceflight. This altitude is called the Kármán line. In particular, in the 1940s there were several test launches of the V-2 rocket, some of which reached altitudes well over 100 km.
As of 2016, only three nations have flown crewed spacecraft: USSR/Russia, USA, and China. The first crewed spacecraft was Vostok 1, which carried Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961, and completed a full Earth orbit. There were five other crewed missions which used a Vostok spacecraft. 187 kilometers (116 mi). There were five other crewed missions using Mercury spacecraft.The second crewed spacecraft was named Freedom 7, and it performed a sub-orbital spaceflight in 1961 carrying American astronaut Alan Shepard to an altitude of just over
Other Soviet crewed spacecraft include the Voskhod, Soyuz, flown uncrewed as Zond/L1, L3, TKS, and the Salyut and Mir crewed space stations. Other American crewed spacecraft include the Gemini spacecraft, the Apollo spacecraft including the Apollo Lunar Module, the Skylab space station, the Space Shuttle with undetached European Spacelab and private US Spacehab space stations-modules, and the SpaceX Crew Dragon configuration of their Dragon 2. US company Boeing also developed and flown a spacecraft of their own, the CST-100, commonly referred to as Starliner, but a crewed flight is yet to occur. China developed, but did not fly Shuguang, and is currently using Shenzhou (its first crewed mission was in 2003).
Except for the Space Shuttle, all of the recoverable crewed orbital spacecraft were space capsules.
The International Space Station, crewed since November 2000, is a joint venture between Russia, the United States, Canada and several other countries.
Spaceplanes are spacecraft are built in the shape of, and function as, airplanes. The first example of such was the North American X-15 spaceplane, which conducted two crewed flights which reached an altitude of over 100 km in the 1960s. The first reusable spacecraft, the X-15, was air-launched on a suborbital trajectory on July 19, 1963.
The first partially reusable orbital spacecraft, a winged non-capsule, the Space Shuttle, was launched by the USA on the 20th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's flight, on April 12, 1981. During the Shuttle era, six orbiters were built, all of which have flown in the atmosphere and five of which have flown in space. Enterprise was used only for approach and landing tests, launching from the back of a Boeing 747 SCA and gliding to deadstick landings at Edwards AFB, California. The first Space Shuttle to fly into space was Columbia , followed by Challenger , Discovery , Atlantis , and Endeavour . Endeavour was built to replace Challenger when it was lost in January 1986. Columbia broke up during reentry in February 2003.
The first automatic partially reusable spacecraft was the Buran-class shuttle, launched by the USSR on November 15, 1988, although it made only one flight and this was uncrewed. This spaceplane was designed for a crew and strongly resembled the U.S. Space Shuttle, although its drop-off boosters used liquid propellants and its main engines were located at the base of what would be the external tank in the American Shuttle. Lack of funding, complicated by the dissolution of the USSR, prevented any further flights of Buran. The Space Shuttle was subsequently modified to allow for autonomous re-entry in case of necessity.
Per the Vision for Space Exploration, the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011 mainly due to its old age and high cost of program reaching over a billion dollars per flight. The Shuttle's human transport role is to be replaced by SpaceX's SpaceX Dragon 2 and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner. Dragon 2's first crewed flight occurred on May 30, 2020.The Shuttle's heavy cargo transport role is to be replaced by expendable rockets such as the Space Launch System and ULA's Vulcan rocket, as well as the commercial launch vehicles.
Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne was a reusable suborbital spaceplane that carried pilots Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie on consecutive flights in 2004 to win the Ansari X Prize. The Spaceship Company will build its successor SpaceShipTwo. A fleet of SpaceShipTwos operated by Virgin Galactic was planned to begin reusable private spaceflight carrying paying passengers in 2014, but was delayed after the crash of VSS Enterprise.
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A spacecraft system comprises various subsystems, depending on the mission profile. Spacecraft subsystems comprise the spacecraft's "bus" and may include attitude determination and control (variously called ADAC, ADC, or ACS), guidance, navigation and control (GNC or GN&C), communications (comms), command and data handling (CDH or C&DH), power (EPS), thermal control (TCS), propulsion, and structures. Attached to the bus are typically payloads.
Human spaceflight is spaceflight with a crew or passengers aboard a spacecraft, the spacecraft being operated directly by the onboard human crew. Spacecraft can also be remotely operated from ground stations on Earth, or autonomously, without any direct human involvement. People trained for spaceflight are called astronauts, cosmonauts, or taikonauts; and non-professionals are referred to as spaceflight participants.
Space exploration is the use of astronomy and space technology to explore outer space. While the exploration of space is carried out mainly by astronomers with telescopes, its physical exploration though is conducted both by unmanned robotic space probes and human spaceflight. Space exploration, like its classical form astronomy, is one of the main sources for space science.
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.
Spaceflight is an application of astronautics to fly spacecraft into or through outer space, either with or without humans on board. Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union was the first human to conduct a spaceflight. Examples of human spaceflight include the U.S. Apollo Moon landing and Space Shuttle programs and the Russian Soyuz program, as well as the ongoing International Space Station. Examples of uncrewed spaceflight include space probes that leave Earth orbit, as well as satellites in orbit around Earth, such as communications satellites. These operate either by telerobotic control or are fully autonomous.
Uncrewed spacecraft or unmanned spacecraft are spacecraft without people on board, used for robotic spaceflight. 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 reusable launch system is a launch system that allows for the reuse of some or all of the component stages. To date, several fully reusable suborbital systems and partially reusable orbital systems have been flown.
The space program of the People's Republic of China is directed by the China National Space Administration (CNSA). Its technological roots can be traced back to the late 1950s, when China began a ballistic missile program in response to perceived American threats. However, the first Chinese crewed space program only began several decades later, when an accelerated program of technological development culminated in Yang Liwei's successful 2003 flight aboard Shenzhou 5. This achievement made China the third country to independently send humans into space. Plans currently include a permanent Chinese space station in 2022, crewed expeditions to the Moon and interplanetary missions to explore the Solar System and beyond.
Kosmos is a designation given to many satellites operated by the Soviet Union and subsequently Russia. Kosmos 1, the first spacecraft to be given a Kosmos designation, was launched on 16 March 1962.
A spaceplane is a vehicle that can fly and glide like an aircraft in Earth's atmosphere and maneuver like a spacecraft in outer space. To do so, spaceplanes must incorporate features of both aircraft and spacecraft. Orbital spaceplanes tend to be more similar to conventional spacecraft, while sub-orbital spaceplanes tend to be more similar to fixed-wing aircraft. All spaceplanes to date have been rocket-powered but then landed as unpowered gliders.
The Soviet space program was the national space program of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), conducted in competition with its Cold War adversary the United States, known as the Space Race from the mid-1950s until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. It consisted of the development of expendable launch vehicles, uncrewed artificial satellites starting in 1953, and several human spaceflight programs.
The Boeing X-37, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), is a reusable robotic spacecraft. It is boosted into space by a launch vehicle, then re-enters Earth's atmosphere and lands as a spaceplane. The X-37 is operated by the United States Space Force, and was previously operated by Air Force Space Command until 2019 for orbital spaceflight missions intended to demonstrate reusable space technologies. It is a 120-percent-scaled derivative of the earlier Boeing X-40. The X-37 began as a NASA project in 1999, before being transferred to the United States Department of Defense in 2004.
Spaceflight began in the 20th century following theoretical and practical breakthroughs by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Robert H. Goddard. The Soviet Union took the lead in the post-war Space Race, launching the first satellite, the first man and the first woman into orbit. The United States caught up with, and then passed, their Soviet rivals during the mid-1960s, landing the first man on the Moon in 1969. In the same period, France, the United Kingdom, Japan and China were concurrently developing more limited launch capabilities.
The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to space exploration:
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is an independent agency of the U.S. federal government responsible for the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and space research.
A space tug is a type of spacecraft used to transfer spaceborne cargo from one orbit to another orbit with different energy characteristics. An example would be moving a spacecraft from a low Earth orbit (LEO) to a higher-energy orbit like a geostationary transfer orbit, a lunar transfer, or an escape trajectory.
ArgoMoon is a nanosatellite that will fly on NASA's Artemis 1 mission into a heliocentric orbit in cislunar space on the maiden flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft, in 2021. The satellite has the dimensions of a shoe box in CubeSat terms, it is a 6U.
On October 4, 1957 Sputnik I shot into orbit and forcibly opened the Space Age.