Space Probe: Definition & Facts

Instructor: Josh Corbat

Josh has taught Earth Science and Physical Science at the High School level and holds a Master of Education degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.

For hundreds of years, astronomers had only the telescope to study stars and planets. Modern scientists have come a long way since then, with the invention of the space probe. In this lesson, we will learn what a space probe is as well as highlight a few noteworthy probes.

Space Probes

It seems that every other day there is a new special on TV about aliens. Aliens are a constant point of interest for people, mostly because they are shrouded in mystery. Terror also plays a part in raising the interest in aliens to such high levels. People tend to fear the unknown and we certainly know very little about any extraterrestrial life that may exist in our universe. If scientists are ever to shine a light on the alien issue (perhaps even discovering alien civilizations on distant planets), they will probably not do so with any Earth-based technology. They will instead turn to devices that are far beyond our planet.

A space probe is a robotic spacecraft that travels outside of Earth's orbit and gathers information about distant planets and outer space. Space probes are designed to operate on their own, gathering data and sending it back to Earth for scientists to analyze. Scientists have sent probes in many directions in space. Probes have traveled toward many of the planets in our solar system, toward our Sun, and even off beyond the orbit of Pluto. Each probe has a different mission and collects different data. It is common for probes to be powered by a combination of batteries and solar panels, but some probes have other experimental power sources as well.

An artistic rendering of the probe Deep Space. Notice the solar panels extending from the sides. These provide power for the probe on its long journey.
Deep Space

Stages of a Space Probe's Mission

As you might imagine, every probe mission starts in the facility in which it is built. After countless hours of science and engineering, the probe is ready for launch. Space probes are launched into space using rockets, essentially the same method utilized for launching satellites into orbit. However, the mission of a space probe is much different from that of a satellite.

Once in space, the probe will begin whatever trajectory (path) the mission calls for. Generally, the probe will go into orbit around the sun in order to make it to its final destination. Other methods can be utilized, however, like the gravitational slingshot method, in which the probe uses a planet's gravity to boost its speed and save fuel. The end of the probe's mission will obviously be very different for each probe. Some continue travelling through space forever, whereas others impact various objects in space.

Noteworthy Space Probes Throughout History

The following details some notable space probes and their accomplishments.

Luna 9: In 1966, this probe was the first to land on the moon softly. It also marked the first landing on any surface beyond Earth.

Luna 16: The first samples from the moon came from the return of this probe in 1970.

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