Space Missions—II

Space Missions Classification

Space missions can be categorized based on a number of factors such as mission duration, spacecraft size, orbital location, cost, objective, geographic origin etc. The classification approach is usually motivated by the intended use of the classification exercise’s outcome. However, a prudent and insightful categorization of space missions focuses on the nature of the mission function. Therefore, the following six exhaustive categories are realized upon classifying space missions in this manner:

  1. Earth Observation Missions: Missions that investigate given phenomena occurring on Earth i.e. in the atmosphere, on the surfaces and underground.
  2. Communication Missions: Missions that broaden telecommunication capability here on Earth using spacecraft-located transponders.
  3. Space Exploration Missions: Missions that undertake scientific investigations of space phenomena. They scrutinize all other phenomena in space except the Earth e.g. stars, comets, asteroids, solar winds, cosmic rays other planets etc.
  4. Crewed Missions: Missions that are manned whilst in orbit.
  5. Technology Test Missions: Experimental missions that flight-test new space technologies or flight-proof existing technologies that have not been flown in space.
  6. Other: Missions that do not fall in any of the above categories e.g. space burial  missions, on-orbit manufacturing etc.

Space Technology Capability Hierarchy

As we have noted above, space missions chiefly consist of three major segments, i.e. a ground segment, launch vehicle segment and on-orbit space platform.

There is a varying degree of technological competence and capability in each segment among different countries involved in space exploitation. This varying technological ability can be used to hierarchically group countries and demonstrate their level of proficiency in space technology as a whole. This expertise hierarchical grouping is shown in the figure below.

Space technology capability hierarchy

We should observe that the number of countries decrease with increasing technical complexity and cost as you go up the pyramid structure. A nation typically possesses all the capabilities of a level below it and may also have partial capability of a level directly above it in diverse forms.

  • Users. These are nations that simply consume products and services generated by space technology resources created and owned by other countries. Most countries including Kenya currently belong to this category. An example of such products and services is use of Global Navigation Satellite System popularly referred to as GPS.
  • Space Systems Operators. These countries are able to independently monitor, control and maintain turn-key on-orbit space assets they have acquired.  However, they do not have the technical ability to design and fabricate the ground infrastructure required for this task. Fewer nations belong in this level than the User level. Examples include Indonesia and Nigeria.
  • Spacecraft Manufacturers. Countries at this level possess independent technical proficiency to design and build functional spacecraft systems and the necessary ground support infrastructure. Examples include South Korea, Brazil and South Africa.
  • Launch Capability. Countries at this level independently possess space transportation system competence and are able to launch spacecraft into designated orbits in space. This level has less than 10 members and they are USA, Russia, China, European Space Agency (ESA) members, Japan, Ukraine, India and Israel.
  • Human Spaceflight. Until recently, only two nations—USA and Russia (former USSR) had the technological expertise to safely deliver humans into orbit and safely return them to Earth. In 2003 however, China become the third member of this exclusive club when it conducted its first human spaceflight. At present, strictly speaking only two countries i.e. Russia and China possess this capability because NASA retired the space shuttle and it is yet to inaugurate a replacement vehicle despite numerous ongoing attempts to do so.

The integration of space technology for national development in Kenya should be undertaken in a manner that will ensure a genuine progression up the space technology capability hierarchy pyramid. Technology test missions will have to be the starting point followed by earth observation and communication missions.

This marks the end of the series on Space Missions. The series put into context space missions types, the level of space technological capabilities that a country can master. Finally, we reconciled how these aspects relate to Kenya.

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