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Uses of Computers in Space Exploration

Computers play a critical role in space exploration. Right from analyzing data, to simulation, to designing and calculating the complex variables, everything is done with the help of computers. This Techspirited article enlists the uses of computers in space research and exploration.

Did you know?

It would be impossible to have the Hubble Telescope in space, had it not been for the advancement in computers and space technology. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which will succeed Hubble, will be launched soon, which is accompanied by advanced computer systems and software, that will help us further reveal the enigmas of the universe.
Computers have led to major advancements and breakthroughs in space research. Every aspect of space technology, be it designing a spaceship, its control and navigation, or compiling and processing data, has all been done by computers.
The complicated arithmetical computations needed to fly spacecrafts, monitor the work of astronauts in space, keep them alive, and analyze as well as interpret the collected data, would be extremely difficult and take a long time, if not for computers.
In fact, computer technology and space research have grown together, to take astronomy to new heights, wherein we are able to unravel some of the numerous mysteries of the universe.

Getting Into Space

Designing the Spaceship
Computers help design the aircraft which is made from equipment that is customized and highly sophisticated.
This spacecraft has to endure various threats, and numerous technicians and engineers plan its design and working very minutely.
After the spacecraft is built, it is run through many automated tests, which are created by computers to simulate cold, vacuum, and vibrations, that it will encounter in space. Once it passes all these tests, it is ready to be launched.
Planning and Preparation
Space missions need accurate planning and calculations of the trajectories, propulsion, and path that a space vehicle will take.
It must be defined precisely after considering the motions and gravitational forces of various celestial bodies. The time, amount of fuel, duration of the mission, everything needs to be exact. Even a millisecond of miscalculation can prove disastrous. Considering all this, computers are used to carefully plan and prepare the mission.


The craft has in-built software for diagnostic tests and updates, that are constantly run to check the status of the equipment.
If encountered with a problem, it reports it to the team on Earth, which will give or suggest a solution to that problem and get it solved. Many problems would go unreported, if not for computers, which could prove disastrous to the mission.


Placing a spacecraft at the exact accurate position, its trajectories, etc., all need to be precisely calculated. It is done in three dimensions.
The engines that need to fire up, their time and duration, are all taken care of by computers. The navigation of the spacecraft and keeping a spacecraft on its course is something that computers monitor and keep in control 24/7.

In Space

Imaging and Space Photography
Computers, with the help of large telescopes, capture high quality images of planets, the Earth, moon, asteroids, stars, comets, galaxies, other celestial bodies, and unknown matter that exists within the universe.
Digital photography has changed the ways of astronomy, as we can alter the images and colors, use filters and satellite information to view the images more clearly. It is possible to enlarge images and see more than we could with our naked eyes.
The famous Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched by NASA in 1990, continues to transfer thousands of images of the cosmos to Earth, with the help of computers. If calculated, 120 gigabytes of data is what we get from the Hubble Telescope, every week.
Data Analysis and Storage
Research data is so vast and huge that, manual storage of this data would take years. Computers play a vital role in the compilation, storage, and sharing of this information.
This technical information is collected, organized, and maintained effectively by computers, for scientists to be able to stay updated and gather real-time information all around the world.
Various astronomical phenomena like black holes, quasars, or even sunspots, have unique signals and patterns. Computers sift and sort out data regarding these patterns on their own, so that the work of space explorers becomes easier.
Communication and Robotics
Communication with the mission craft is done with the help of computers.
Keeping in touch, transferring data, power management, motion, movement, sending and receiving new data or programming, is all done with the help of computers. The robots or rovers that are sent on a space mission are manipulated, controlled, and guided by computers.
Life Support for Astronauts
The living conditions and environmental control systems of a spacecraft use computers to monitor the devices that keep the atmosphere in the spacecraft healthy and liveable.
The humidity controls, oxygen sensors, carbon dioxide purifiers, thermostats, and other devices, are kept in check by the computers. If any problems arise, the crew is immediately alerted, and the problem is rectified.

Constant Vigilance

Computers constantly monitor objects like satellites, rockets, debris, etc., which revolve around the Earth. They keep a track, detect, and help identify various celestial bodies that orbit Earth. They help catalog the data sent by various surveillance satellites and space control centers.
The United States Space Surveillance Network (SSN) contains powerful radar sensors, highly effective computers, and tracking devices, that are constantly on the watch, and send and receive a steady flow of information from the satellites and centers.

Space Research

Space Simulations

Computers allow scientists to simulate extreme environmental conditions and complicated flight situations in space. Recording the observations in detail and their analysis, helps scientists extend the horizons in space exploration, research, and development.
A branch of the European Space Agency, called European Test Services, maintains the biggest space simulator in the world - the Large Space Simulator (LSS). Sun fluxes, extreme temperature and pressure conditions are simulated by the LSS, that helps in building, testing, and preparing space equipment.
Orbiter is a free Windows PC software that allows space enthusiasts to experience space flights and study them, using the real space simulations it creates.

Thus, visualization, manipulation, transmission of signals, and hordes of complex calculations are also done with the help of computers.
Major breakthroughs, theories, and advancements in astronomy have been possible because of computers. We owe our knowledge about the universe to them, and hope that these man-made creations will help us unravel more mysteries of the cosmos in future, as both information technology and astronomy continue to grow and advance by leaps and bounds.

 Anuya Waghmare