7 Major Factors to Keep in Mind While Building a Space Probe

NASA's first space probe, Voyager 1, was launched on a journey to study the outer solar system on September 5, 1977. Currently, the Voyager 1 is somewhere in the outer space 11.7 billion miles away from the Earth, travelling even further away at the speed of 61,000 km/h.

FREMONT, CA: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" - Neil Armstrong. Space exploration has always fascinated humankind. From the first crewed mission into space until finding traces of water on Mars, the human race has always looked to challenge all its discoveries at every step. With each new generation of scientists and astronauts, the hunger to explore the unexplored keeps increasing. At present, private companies are working relentlessly to make commercial space travel a reality. Driven by their ambition, billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have invested heavily in their companies SpaceX and Blue Origin, respectively to shape the future of space travel. Over the years, technology has advanced multiple folds. However, the use of space probes remains prevalent to this date.

Space probes are robotic spacecraft that go beyond the boundaries of the Earth. These probes can travel to the Moon and beyond interplanetary space. They can perform various functions like flyby, orbit, and land on the planetary body if required. Before sending crewed missions to different parts of space, data collected by probes can be used to assess the kind of risks involved.

NASA's first space probe, Voyager 1, was launched on a journey to study the outer solar system on September 5, 1977. Over the years, the probe has collected and sent valuable data like volcanic eruptions on Jupiter, pictures of a dark spot on Neptune, and the probable presence of possible liquid on the Moon of Saturn. Currently, the Voyager 1 is somewhere in the outer space 11.7 billion miles away from the Earth, travelling even further away at the speed of 61,000 km/h.

However, not every probe mission is a successful one. Over the years, NASA has incurred tremendous losses due to many failures during probes. Although these come at a cost, one can think and be relieved that no human life was involved in these missions. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory was one such mission where NASA could not succeed. The mission aimed to look at how carbon monoxide moves through the atmosphere. The probe failed to reach its intended orbit because the containing satellite was unable to detach from the rocket, due to which the whole assembly crashed into the ocean.

Another such mission was the Genesis program. The spacecraft was intended to help scientists study the original composition of the solar system, and was sent into space to fetch solar winds for scientists to study actual pieces of the sun. The satellite faced complications when returning to the Earth as the probe was too delicate to land. As a result, the spacecraft crash-landed in the middle of a desert. However, the mission was not a complete failure as scientists were able to retrieve some of the collected samples from the crash site, as the material used for construction included stable wafers.

Here are seven major challenges faced while manufacturing a space probe.

Proper Propulsion

Space Probes are created with the objective of travelling over long distances. This makes proper and adequate propulsion systems inevitable for a probe in the long run. To maintain the course with precision in the long term, service modules are built with multiple engines with each serving specific purposes. Just like in an aircraft, in case of an engine failure, there must always be a backup. The Orion Spacecraft, for example, consists of nearly 33 engines. Any kind of propulsion requires fuel, and without proper fuel systems, it is not possible for spacecraft to travel long distances. Just like engines, fuels also must have adequate backups.

Ability to Resist Heat

Deep Space travels involve travelling at really high speeds, as a result of which a lot of heat is generated on the surface of the spacecraft. Hence, spacecraft must be designed using materials that have the ability to counter the heat. The heat generated during space travel can be as hot as molten lava. To ensure the stability of flight at such temperatures, the materials used for construction should have advanced heat shields. The materials used in the development of Orion Spacecrafts comes with AVCOAT protection, which enables the spacecraft to endure temperatures up to 5000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Protection Against Radiation

Radiation poses an imminent threat to anything that is outside the Earth's atmosphere. Space probes travel beyond Earth's magnetic shield and can potentially be hit by solar storms, which can result in shutting down of computers or even complete electronic failures. Even if the Space probe is built using radiation-resistant material, it is safer to have back up computers in the unfortunate incident of radiation exposure.

Navigation and Communication

Space probes travel beyond the limits of Global Positioning Systems. They require their unique space communication networks in order to maintain contact with the Earth. Even then, these probes go millions of miles and cannot support direct contact with the command centre. Satellites and other space objects that are in orbit closer to the Earth need to be used as linkage to maintain tracking and data relay.

Differences in Atmospheres

The Earth's atmosphere is very different from those present on other planets. In order to ensure a smooth landing, it is crucial to slow down and maintain just the adequate landing speed suitable for the surrounding atmosphere. Re-entry into the Earth is made possible with the help of parachutes that help reduce the speed of the probe. The Moon and Mars are entirely different in this matter. The Moon has no atmosphere and probes to the Moon are often dragged down using an additional rocket. Mars, on the other hand, has a very thin atmosphere and requires different techniques to make a smooth landing. NASA uses the aid of multiple options like airbags, rockets, aero-shells, parachutes, and Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator.

Fueling the Probe

Energy is produced on Earth by burning fuel, but the same is not applicable in space travel as space probe missions are stretched over long periods. It would be impractical to carry fuels like gas, coal, wood or oil as they would occupy large amounts of space and would not be possible to build spacecraft large enough to carry such enormous amounts of fuel. Solar panels can be used as an alternative source of energy, but then again they come with a prerequisite that the pannels must be facing the sun and would be useless in deep space missions when the probe is on the dark side of a moon. Hence, solar panels can be used only when the probe missions follow a path in the direct line of the sunlight. Radioisotopes are a more advanced form of an energy source that can be used for space travel. These generate heat by the decay of radioactive material, and it also overcomes the problem of space occupied as the material can be as tiny as a golf ball and can supply adequate energy for decades.

Real-Time Relay of Information

Collecting information alone is not adequate as data needs to be transferred back to the command centre before it becomes old and outdated. There is a need for a proper channel of communication between the space probe and Earth. NASA spacecraft are equipped with distinctive antennae that receive and send information using radio signals. These signals are carried out by sturdy radio dishes that make use of Deep Space Network.

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