Educator's Guide to Robotic Spacecraft|
Courtesy of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Robots: Like Us!
Spacecraft are complex, technological objects that have to
function far from Earth in the harsh environment of space. They
collect science data and send it to Earth. But, as strange as
they appear to be, it can help to understand them if we compare
spacecraft to ourselves!
Think of the spacecraft as a living organism. As a lesson, this
can be done in either of two directions. If the students are
familiar with spacecraft they can be prompted with body parts and
attempt to identify the analogous spacecraft part.
This will work well if the students have a high quality picture
of a modern spacecraft. Pictures of planetary spacecraft work
the best since they have the least amount of their equipment
hidden or encased in the body of the spacecraft.
In the other direction, the students can be prompted with
spacecraft parts and challenged to identify the relative
anatomical part. This can lead to interesting discussions and
differences of opinion ('Is electrical wiring more like blood
vessels or nerves?').
The list below is not exhaustive but it sets the stage for a good
follow-on activity. Identify a mission and a destination for a
spacecraft and have teams of students design the spacecraft.
They must be sure that the spacecraft has all the correct parts
to fulfill critical functions.
(It cannot have solar panels if it
is going to Neptune, but it can have
radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) if it is going to
Mercury; however, including both takes up critical weight).
Keep in mind, landers and "rovers" are spacecraft too. Rovers
require ways to move and navigate.
We human beings are built, and have to do certain things, to
remain alive. The same is true for spacecraft.
Spacecraft: Solar panels (sunlight), radioisotope thermoelectric
generators (heat from the decay of radioactive
material; necessary in the weak lighting far from the
Sun), or batteries (stored energy)
Spacecraft: "Bus" (The housing that holds the spacecraft
components and to which other devices are attached)
Spacecraft: Electrical wiring
Spacecraft: Blankets (for temperature control [the spacecraft can
not sweat but it can have radiators or louvers to get
rid of excess heat] and meteorite protection)
Spacecraft: Rocket motors, fuel tanks (Because objects in motion
tend to remain in motion, most spacecraft do not need
to constantly burn fuel to move; their small rockets
[thrusters] are used to change their orientation in
space; a small amount of fuel lasts many years)
Humans: Blood vessels
Spacecraft: Fuel lines
Spacecraft also have sense organs to explore the places that
they visit. They must communicate the data back to Earth and
receive new instructions.
Humans: Eyes (sense organs)
Spacecraft: Camera(s), spectrometers, magnetometers, other
Spacecraft: Scan platform (which pivots around so that the
instruments can point in the desired direction
without reorienting the whole spacecraft)
Spacecraft: Communications antenna(e) (and receivers and
Can you think of any other comparisons?