Through this link : here, it is possible to get an idea of regions where space probes have been sent since the beginning of space exploration.

But my question is, what are the bare bones essential parts that are compulsorily included in any space probe design, and secondly, how does the construction and operation of a space probe differ based on its intended journey.

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    $\begingroup$ Probes are sufficiently close to the very limits of our engineering abilities that I'm not sure there's any guaranteed commonality between missions. Most probes have to communicate by radio and make observations by some instrumentation or other, both of which require a power supply of some sort, and most also have to manage attitude control. The details of those, as well as basically everything else, depend on the constraints of the mission. So this is really too broad to answer well. $\endgroup$ Mar 7 '16 at 23:31
  • $\begingroup$ Further to Nathan Tuggy's comment, design should be requirements driven, from which it could lead in many directions. Consider these questions about the research objectives a) is it visiting an object (planet/asteroid) or observing the Sun or interplanetary medium? b) if visiting an object - measure fields, atmospheric spectroscopy, imaging etc. We haven't begun to consider would it be a fly-by, orbiter or lander - that could be a long way into the solution rather than the requirements. I hope this helps. If you wish to revise the question please feel free to share your thoughts.. $\endgroup$
    – Puffin
    Mar 8 '16 at 0:47

Making probes are generally not like mass-production, it is more like crafting. Launch costs are high, and therefore minimizing the mass of the probe is important, even if it takes a lot of work. Therefore, probes are often very individually constructed.

However, there are some things probe must have:

  • A power supply
  • Communication equipment
  • A scientific payload (This one will naturally vary a lot)
  • Propulsion (usually)

But even those can be achieved in different ways, like how solar panels are used in the inner solar system where there are enough sunlight, and RTG's where the Sun is too weak.

As a criterion, a probe has to send back data to Earth, in order to be usable. Thus, one of the few things probes must have in common is antennas.

  • $\begingroup$ Just to be annoyingly pedantic: it is not strictly required that an antenna must be included. A retro-reflecting satellite can be used for experiments where determining its position is needed (compare the Apollo mission retro reflectors). A sample/data/full body return vehicle will similarly not require antennas. An impactor does not need to have antennas. That said; it is extremely rare that a probe is not equipped with antennas. But no, it is not a must. :) $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Mar 8 '16 at 9:48
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelKarnerfors Or a telegraph, semaphore station, mail service, diligence, clouds of orange smoke, quantum-entanglement-walkie-talkie or alternating detonation of nuclear weapons and harpoons. What ever that can be used to transfer information $\endgroup$ Mar 8 '16 at 9:52

There are a few general criteria that influence probe design:


How far from the Sun will the probe operate? This dictates:

  • power
  • thermal design
  • radio design
  • launcher size

Anything out to Jupiter can be powered by solar panels, go further out and you'll need an RTG. Depending on this distance you may also need heaters to keep the interior of the spacecraft warm enough to function. Or if you go to the inner solar system, you need to think about removing excess heat.

The further away you go, the better your radio needs to be. This drives e.g. amplifier size, antenna size, receiver quality.


A probe that orbits Jupiter or Saturn needs more radiation hardening than one that's destined for Mars or Pluto.

Launcher size

To get further out, you need a bigger launcher (and even then you may need gravity assists). The size of your launcher determines the maximum weight of your probe, which in turn drives all other aspects of the design.


The instruments are driven by the mission (what science do we want to do?) but are constrained by power, weight etc.

Bare bones

So, what do you really need?

  1. Instruments,
  2. A radio,
  3. Enough power to run 1. and 2., so solar panels or an RTG,
  4. (usually) some maneuvering capability, so thrusters and/or reaction wheels,
  5. A chassis that holds all of these.

In short there is nothing that is compulsory beyond actually getting something with mass up there. The equipment is entirely dependant on the mission at hand. This must be made slightly more generic or we will have to start listing all the different types of missions that a space probe can be sent on.

There are a number of things that are common on a space craft however. @Hoffmanfan have already mentioned a few. I will add to this: the "bus".



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