13 Types of Spacecrafts and Their Characteristics Explained

Types of spacecrafts are; crewed, un-crewed, space probe, space station, space capsule, orbiter, satellite, lander, interplanetary, flyby, interstellar, rover, and space shuttle.

This article discusses the types of spacecrafts as follows;


1). Crewed Spacecraft (as one of the Types of Spacecrafts)

Crewed spacecraft (or ‘manned’ spacecraft) is a type of spacecraft that is designed and equipped for human occupation.

The components of this type of spacecraft are built for manned space exploration; which is a type of space exploration that is controlled by a crew of cosmonauts.

Compared to un-crewed spacecrafts, crewed spacecrafts are complex, due to the need for human-specialized equipment.

There are also safety risks involved in the use of crewed spacecrafts. This includes potential exposure to radiation, accidents, and unfavorable health effects of the outer space environment [13].

However, crewed spacecrafts provide the benefit of human space travel, and can enable scientists to gather extraterrestrial information in a definite and effective manner.

Types of Spacecrafts: Crewed Spacecraft (Credit: NASA 2013)
Types of Spacecrafts: Crewed Spacecraft (Credit: NASA 2013)


2). Un-crewed Spacecraft

Un-crewed spacecrafts are spacecrafts that operate without any direct human influence.

They are also called ‘unmanned’ spacecrafts and generally have no humans onboard during space missions.

The technologies used to develop this type of spacecraft include robotics and artificial intelligence, so that they rely on algorithms for autonomous operations [8].

Because there is no need for human-specialized components, un-crewed spacecrafts are often simpler than crewed crafts.

They also have the advantage of being usable in harsh and remote parts of outer space, since this does not pose a risk to human lives.

Due to their geographic versatility, un-crewed spacecrafts are effective for data collection.

It is important to note that space telescopes are also un-crewed spacecrafts, although some classifications may place them in a distinct category called ‘observatory spacecrafts’. Examples of un-crewed spacecrafts include; NASA Lander and US Lunar hard-landing probe.


3). Space Probe

A space probe is a type of spacecraft that is specially designed to study the characteristics of extraterrestrial planetary bodies.

Based on their specialization, space probes may be described as planetary, atmospheric, interplanetary, or edaphic probes among others.

Some specialized space probes may also be categorized as a distinct type, such as atmospheric spacecraft and penetrator spacecraft; which are space probes specialized for atmospheric and soil studies respectively.

Characteristics that are studied using space probes include soil, rock, environmental temperature, atmospheric pressure, and atmospheric gas composition [9].

Because of the nature of their function, space probes are generally unmanned and operate using artificial intelligence and robotics.

The Magellan, launched in 1989 by NASA, is an example of a space probe which was used to map and study the surface of Venus [5].


4). Space Station

A space station is an elaborate spacecraft composed of facilities for active research, data collection and experimenting.

Essentially, a space station is an extraterrestrial, multinational facility equipped with laboratories that are used by researchers from various countries [10].

The International Space Station (ISS) is the most prominent space station as at 2022. Situated in low Earth orbit, it houses research facilities and took up to a decade and multiple space trips to assemble.

Tiangong Space Station (TSS) is another example of an active space station.

The importance of this type of spacecraft lies in the fact that it serves as a stable base around which elaborate space operations can be centered.

Types of Spacecrafts: Space Station (Credit: NASA 2009)
Types of Spacecrafts: Space Station (Credit: NASA 2009)


5). Space Capsule

A space capsule is a type of spacecraft that is designed to carry equipment and crew, on outer-space missions.

In many cases, space capsules are used to transport equipment for extraterrestrial data collection and research. Also, space capsules are often used with space stations, as cargo vehicles for supplying components.

The navigation of space capsules may be orbital or sub orbital, depending on intended use.


6). Orbiter Spacecraft

An orbiter spacecraft is a spacecraft that is designed to navigate within the orbit of planetary bodies.

These spacecrafts may be used to navigate around Planets and Moons.

Orbital navigation is important because it helps to collect both specific and general data about outer space over a significant period of time.

In order for an orbiter spacecraft to reach its destination, it must navigate with a high amount of propulsion force, and velocity. The speed threshold for entering into orbit is referred to as ‘orbital velocity’, and must be reached before orbital navigation becomes possible.

An example of an orbiter spacecraft is the Galileo spacecraft which was launched by NASA and entered into the orbit of Jupiter in 1995 [11].


7). Satellite

Satellite is a type of spacecraft that is designed mainly for data collection, transmission, and communication purposes.

They are usually launched into orbit around the Earth or any other planetary body of interest. As the satellite navigates in orbit, it collects and shares data with correspondent stations on Earth.

An example of a satellite spacecraft is Sputnik 1; which was launched by the Soviet Union in October of 1957 [14].

Space satellites are particularly effective for geographic surveying, including GPS (Global Positioning System) and GIS (Geographic Information System) applications.


8). Lander Spacecraft

Lander spacecraft is a type of spacecraft that is used to land safely on the surface of an extraterrestrial body.

This is one of the most effective types of spacecrafts used for on-ground studies and data collection.

Its effectiveness for safe landing comes from the fact that lander spacecrafts are less-impactful in their descent on a planetary surface, unlike other crafts like space probes. This prevents damage of the lander spacecraft and its cargo.

The lander spacecraft is usually equipped with autonomous and robotic capabilities for operations on extraterrestrial planets.

They are also commonly used to transport rover spacecrafts and land them safely on other planets, where the rovers can navigate and explore.

Types of Spacecrafts: Lander (Credit: NASA 2007)
Types of Spacecrafts: Lander (Credit: NASA 2007)


9). Interplanetary Spacecraft

Interplanetary spacecraft is a type of spacecraft that is designed to be explore extraterrestrial planets and the zones in-between planets.

This type of spacecraft is either crewed or un-crewed, and is usually fortified to withstand harsh conditions such as extreme temperature [7].

Uses of interplanetary spacecrafts include observation, data collection and telecommunication.


10). Flyby Spacecraft

Flyby spacecraft is a type of spacecraft which is used to navigate an extra-orbital path close to a planetary body.

The term ‘extra-orbital’ here refers to a continuous path that brings the spacecraft in proximity with planetary bodies, without entering into the orbit of any of these bodies.

Flyby space missions are very useful for large-scale observation and data collection purposes, because they do not necessarily involve confinement to one planetary body or orbit, thereby allowing the spacecraft to pass by (that is; to ‘fly-by’) multiple space features, and collect multivariate data on a single mission.

However, there are some shortcomings to the use of flyby spacecrafts. One of them is limited exposure.

Because flyby navigation does not involve orbital movement, it is only possible to collect data based on a one-sided view of space features. A well-rounded view cannot be attained on flyby missions, and the time of exposure to any particular feature is limited.

Also, flyby spacecrafts are at risk of damage from low Earth orbit debris [2].

because most of such debris occupies extra-orbital zones in space.

Examples of flyby spacecrafts are Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, which were launched in 1977 by NASA. These spacecrafts flew past multiple planetary bodies including Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Flyby spacecrafts may also function as interstellar spacecrafts (which are discussed next) because the extra-orbital zones often coincide with interstellar zones.


11). Interstellar Spacecraft

An interstellar spacecraft is a type of spacecraft that is designed to navigate within interstellar zones, or between stars.

The interstellar zone itself refers to the space between stellar systems; or between various stars in a galaxy.

For a spacecraft to enter interstellar space, it must escape the zone occupied by our solar system, and must exit the influence of our Sun. This region of Solar influence is called the ‘heliosphere’ [6]. Its boundaries are called the heliopause.

Exiting the heliosphere allows the spacecraft to explore other parts of the galaxy, including the zones between other stars like the Sun.

Interstellar spacecrafts require an adaptive and resilient design, as well as sufficient propulsion to achieve interstellar navigation. Voyager 1 is an example of an interstellar spacecraft, being the first manmade object to exceed the heliopause in 2012 [12].


12). Rover

A rover is a spacecraft designed for on-site survey of extraterrestrial planets.

It is designed as a compact, robotic ground vehicle [4], with a semi-autonomous mode of operation, whereby its locomotion is controlled from Earth, while it carries out its observations independently through artificial intelligence.

The observations made by rover spacecrafts are relayed back to Earth in the form of signals. Rover crafts depend partly on renewable energy, specifically solar, for their sustenance [1].

An example of this type of spacecraft is the Perseverance rover, deployed to Mass by NASA in 2020 [3].

In order to reach their destination, rover spacecrafts are carried as cargo by lander crafts.

Types of Spacecrafts: Rover (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech 2012)

Types of Spacecrafts: Rover (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech 2012)


13). Space Shuttle

A space shuttle is a winged spacecraft that was used by NASA between 1981 and 2011 [15].

It had a jetliner geometry, and was slightly larger than space capsules and other small types of spacecrafts.

Although the capacity of space shuttles was relatively low, they pioneered the era of reusable spacecrafts, and formed the foundation of several advancements in the field of space technology.

Types of Spacecrafts: Space Shuttle (Credit: NASA/Tony Gray and Tom Farrar 2010)
Types of Spacecrafts: Space Shuttle (Credit: NASA/Tony Gray and Tom Farrar 2010)



Types of spacecrafts are;

1. Crewed Spacecraft

2. Un-crewed Spacecraft

3. Space Probe

4. Space Station

5. Space Capsule

6. Orbiter Spacecraft

7. Satellite

8. Lander Spacecraft

9. Interplanetary Spacecraft

10. Flyby Spacecraft

11. Interstellar Spacecraft

12. Rover

13. Space Shuttle



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