Spacecraft Meaning, Comparison and Examples Explained

Spacecraft is any vehicular system that is designed and equipped for propulsion and flight in outer space. This article discusses spacecraft meaning, comparison, and examples, as outlined below;


-Spacecraft Meaning: 8 Ways to Define Spacecrafts

-Difference Between Spacecraft, Spaceship, Rocket, Space Shuttle and Satellite

-Examples of Spacecrafts



Spacecraft Meaning: 8 Ways to Define Spacecrafts

A spacecraft is a vehicle which may be any of various types, that is designed for outer space flight in orbital and suborbital zones [2].

The types of spacecrafts have been highlighted in the above definition. Some of them are mentioned in the alternative spacecraft meaning below;

Spacecraft is an astronautic system which may occur in the form of flyby, rover, orbiter, or lander craft, and is used for navigation into and within outer space.

Aside being an astronautic system, spacecrafts are designed based on knowledge from multiple fields. This is further stated in the spacecraft meaning that is given below;

A spacecraft is a sophisticated locomotive system that is designed using knowledge of robotics, artificial intelligence, aeronautics, astronautics, and physics; for the purpose of space exploration.

The term ‘space exploration’ which is used above covers a broad range of operations and applications. In the following spacecraft meaning that is given, some of these applications and operations are highlighted;

Spacecraft is a technological system which is used for space travel, satellite installation, data collection, prospecting, monitoring and research.

Another factor that can be used to outline the spacecraft meaning, is mode of operation. This is shown below;

A spacecraft is any extraterrestrial vehicle that can be operated autonomously (unmanned) or by a crew of cosmonauts (manned), to carry out any of various tasks in outer space [8].

An alternative spacecraft meaning can be given based on the components of a spacecraft, as follows;

A spacecraft is an elaborate aerodynamic machine comprising of rocket boosters, engines and an orbiter for propulsion, sustenance and cargo-housing respectively [5].

The engines and boosters of most spacecrafts run on nuclear fuel and liquid hydrogen respectively [10]. The following version of spacecraft meaning portrays this perspective;

A spacecraft is an extraterrestrial vehicle which runs on renewable energy in the form of nuclear fuel, and uses hydrogen fuel cell technology for its propulsion, electricity generation and sustenance.

Lastly, spacecraft meaning is outlined in the context of sustainable development;

A spacecraft is an innovative technology designed as part of measures to meet the sustainable development goals of circular economic growth, environmental sustainability, and expansion of the human-inhabited ecosystem.


Difference Between Spacecraft, Spaceship, Rocket, Space Shuttle and Satellite

The difference between a spacecraft and a spaceship is; spacecraft is a broad term referring to extraterrestrial vehicles, while spaceship refers specifically to an extraterrestrial vehicle used for transporting cargo to outer space.

Difference between spacecraft and rocket is; a spacecraft is designed primarily to operate in outer space, while a rocket is designed primarily to provide the powerful propulsion required to exit the Earth’s atmosphere.

The difference between a spacecraft and a space shuttle is; a spacecraft is any extraterrestrial vehicle, while a space shuttle is a type of low Earth orbital spacecraft which is partially reusable and was used by NASA in the United States between 1981 and 2011 for satellite launches and other functions [1].

Difference between a spacecraft and satellite is; a spacecraft is a vehicle designed for navigation in outer space, while a satellite is a manmade object designed for extraterrestrial navigation around a planetary body, mainly for data transmission purposes.


The table below summarizes the comparison between these systems;

spacecraft meaning



Examples of Spacecrafts

Examples of spacecrafts are; Mars Global Surveyor, Voyager 2, Huygens, and Perseverance Rover.

They are each discussed briefly below;


1). Mars Global Surveyor (as one of the Examples of Spacecrafts)

The Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) was an orbiter spacecraft which was developed by NASA and launched in November, 1996 [3].

It entered into the orbit of Mars in September, 1997, and was used for monitoring and data collection.

The data collected by Mars Global Surveyor included visual data and climatic data, until the spacecraft’s retirement in 2007.

Examples of Spacecrafts: Mars Global Surveyor (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Corby Waste 1999)
Examples of Spacecrafts: Mars Global Surveyor (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Corby Waste 1999)


2). Voyagers 1 and 2

Voyagers 1 and 2 are flyby spacecrafts that were launched by NASA in September of 1977 [9].

Data transmitted back to Earth from Voyager 1 indicates that the spacecraft flew by Jupiter and Saturn in 1979 and 1980 respectively.

The current travel distance of Voyager 1 is more than 14 billion miles [6], having crossed the heliopause or solar orbit, and entered into interstellar space in August 2012.


3). Huygens (as one of the Examples of Spacecrafts)

Huygens was an atmospheric spacecraft launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) in October 1997 [7].

It was an unmanned robotic craft with a disc-like geometry and a resilient outer design built to withstand harsh conditions.

The goal for launching Huygens was to study the atmospheric and physicochemical conditions on Saturn’s Moon; the Titan. It landed on Titan’s surface in January 2005.

Examples of Spacecrafts: Huygens (Credit: NASA 1997)
Examples of Spacecrafts: Huygens (Credit: NASA 1997)


4). Perseverance

Perseverance is a rover spacecraft that was launched in 2020 by NASA [4].

Rover is one of the most effective types of spacecrafts for investigation of extraterrestrial planetary surfaces.

The Perseverance rover landed in Jezero crater on Mars, in 2021. With the design of a compact car, the spacecraft is equipped for ground navigation and data collection.

Examples of Spacecrafts: Perseverance Rover (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech 2020)
Examples of Spacecrafts: Perseverance Rover (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech 2020)



Spacecraft is any specialized vehicular machine that is equipped to navigate the extraterrestrial zones of outer space for various purposes.

The term spacecraft is slightly different from rocket, spaceship, space shuttle and satellite respectively.

Examples of spacecrafts are;

1. Mars Global Surveyor

2. Voyagers 1 and 2

3. Huygens

4. Perseverance



1). Camarda, C. (2014). “Space Shuttle Design and Lessons Learned.” NATO Science and Technology Lecture Series on “Hypersonic Flight Testing”, von Karman Institute, Rhodes-St-Genese, Belgium. Available at: (Accessed 2 September 2022).

2). Iwasawa, A.; Shigaki, B.; Zhang, H.; Morimoto, S.; Tomita, Y.; Kohtake, N.; Yano, H.; Ohkami, Y. (2011). “Structure of Sub-orbital Flight for both Cargo Delivery and Space Tourism in East Asia.” The 28th International Symposium on Space Technology and Science. Available at: (Accessed 1 September 2022).

3). Jai, B.; Wenkert, D.; Hammer, B.; Carlton, M.; Johnston, D., Halbrook, T. (2007). “An Overview of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission, and Operations Challenges.” AIAA SPACE 2007 Conference & Exposition. Available at: (Accessed 2 September 2022).

4). Maki, J.; Gruel, D.; McKinney, C.; Ravine, M.; Morales, M.; Lee, D.; Willson, R.; Copley-Woods, D.; Valvo, M.; Goodsall, T.; McGuire, J.; Schaffner, J. A.; Sellar, R. G.; Caplinger, M. A.; Shamah, J. M.; Johnson, A. E.; Ansari, H.; Singh, K.; Litwin, T. E.; Deen, R. G.; Culver, A.; Ruoff, N.; Petrizzon, D.; Kessler, D.; Basset, C.; Estlin, T.; Alibay, F.; Nelessen, A.; Algermissen, S. (2020). “The Mars 2020 Engineering Cameras and Microphone on the Perseverance Rover: A Next-Generation Imaging System for Mars Exploration.” Space Science Reviews 216(8). Available at: (Accessed 2 September 2022).

5). Mehta, M.; Seaford, C. M.; Kirchner, R. D.; Dufrene, A. T. (2017). “Space Launch System Core-Stage Rocket Engine Development for Shock-Tunnel Testing.” Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets 55(3):1-21. Available at: (Accessed 1 September 2022).

6). Morrison, R. (20221). “‘The sound of the universe’: NASA’s Voyager-1 spacecraft sends back data revealing the ‘hum’ of interstellar gas from 14 BILLION miles away.” Available at: (Accessed 2 September 2022).

7). Pérez-Ayúcar, M.; Witasse, O.; Lebreton, J.; Kazemineiad, B.; Atkinson, D. H. (2004). A simulated dataset of the Huygens mission.”Available at: (Accessed 2 September 2022).

8). Vyshnovetska, S.; Melnyk, V. (2020). “Unmanned Spacecrafts and Space Drones as the Challenges for Space Law.” Philosophy and Cosmology 24. Available at: (Accessed 1 September 2022).

9). Wood, L. J. (2007). “The Evolution of Deep Space Navigation: 1962-1989.” Advances in the Astronautical Sciences: Guidance and Control 2008, Vol. 131 (pp.285-308). Available at: (Accessed 2 September 2022).

10). Zohuri, B.; Paydar, A. Z.; Kamal, S. (2022). “Nuclear Propulsion for Space Missions.” Available at: (Accessed 2 September 2022).

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