Humans began exploring space in 1957. Now, almost 100 years later, we still don’t know everything about what’s out there. Drones could bridge the gap, reducing the need for human space exploration.
Can drones even fly in space?
Drones have already gone to space, proving that it’s possible. The standard commercial drone cannot fly in space, as the drone must undergo modifications to account for changes in gravity and atmospheric pressure.
This is a very fascinating topic, and we have a lot we want to cover ahead, so let’s dive right in!
To help, we’ve identified and reviewed the best drone courses for beginners and professionals.
Can drones go to space?
The question of whether drones can go into space isn’t one we must ponder. It already happened in 2021.
Granted, the drone, which is called the Ingenuity or Ginny for short, certainly doesn’t look like anything that DJI or Yuneec produces. That’s because Ginny isn’t your average drone, but rather, an extraterrestrial autonomous UAV helicopter.
AeroVironment, Inc., the NASA Langley Research Center, the NASA Ames Research Center, and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory created the preliminary designs for Ginny in 2014. Development started in 2016 and then testing went from there.
Ginny visited Mars but didn’t do so alone. Rather, the drone traveled with a rover called Perseverance attached to it.
Launched into space on April 3, 2021 on the Mars 2020 mission, on April 21st, Ginny performed a vertical takeoff and lingered in the air for 39.1 seconds before landing.
After that first successful flight, Ginny has since gone back into space 38 other times (at least as of this writing), with the last one occurring on January 11, 2023.
Along the way, Ginny has established records for the longest-flying and fastest drone in space.
Is it difficult for a drone to fly in space?
You might wonder why Ginny received such a celebration for only flying for about 40 seconds at a clip in space. Is it because Ginny’s heavy, so a short launch into the air warrants it?
Not exactly. Ginny weighs only four pounds.
Rather, it’s because a drone can’t fly in space easily.
Even though many of us will never experience it personally, we all basically understand that things don’t operate the same in space as they do on earth.
For one, space has no air, as it’s a vacuum. That’s why you can’t take your helmet off when exploring space, as there’s no air to breathe in.
So how does a drone launch into the air when the air doesn’t exist? Ah, isn’t that the billion-dollar question?
The drone needs a special propulsion mechanism. NASA has worked on one for some time, which explains why Ginny can propel itself into the air a little bit but can’t sustain flight for more than 40 seconds.
Once NASA masters propulsion technology, then any of NASA’s future space exploration drones will surely smash previous propulsion records and more thoroughly explore space than even Ginny has.
It’s more than merely propulsion issues from the lack of air that makes it hard to fly a drone in space.
Gravity also changes as gravitational pull recedes the further you travel from the earth. You’re not completely without gravity, even in space, but the weightlessness is yet another factor to accommodate.
Then there’s the temperature in space. It’s usually measured in kelvins, with an average temperature of 2.7 kelvins. That’s -454.81 degrees Fahrenheit and -270.45 degrees Celsius.
It’s colder than any of us can even fathom.
Drones typically use lithium batteries of some sort, but there’s an issue with that. Lithium batteries fail in temperatures lower than -20 degrees Celsius or -68 degrees Fahrenheit.
A drone cannot possibly fly in space without modifications to its power source.
For example, NASA built heaters into the drone’s battery compartment to power Ginny. This allowed the batteries to remain at a more operable temperature so Ginny could explore Mars.
The benefits of drones for space exploration
On the blog, we’ve discussed the wide range of applications that drones are favored for today, everything from aerial mapping to real estate, surveying, and more. Drones have already made leaps and bounds in space exploration, but there’s still much further they can go.
Drones in space provide a lot of benefits, so let’s take a closer look.
Broadens our understanding of space
NASA became interested in sending drones into space for a myriad of reasons. Their drones have mapping capabilities and can capture aerial images and videos of what’s out there beyond our vast planet.
The technology exists for drones to stream live video from space in real-time so scientists back on earth can see what it’s like on other planets.
Further, NASA space drones can inspect areas, teaching us about how planets differ so much from our native earth.
As mentioned in the intro, despite that humans have gone into space for decades now, there’s still so much we don’t know. Space is probably too vast to ever fully explore, at least in our lifetimes, but we should do whatever we can to learn more!
Scientific advancements like increased space knowledge benefit our society as a whole, both for our current generation and many future generations to come.
Ginny could be just the beginning. As NASA refines drone technology in the years to come and drones can fly further and for longer, then deeper space exploration becomes a real possibility. That’s very exciting!
Prevents humans from having to go into space
Astronauts are highly-trained professionals who spend months preparing for a flight before they leave our planet. Nevertheless, accidents happen, and it’s always heartbreaking.
Since humans first entered space in the 1950s through 2023, 19 people have died in space, including four cosmonauts and 15 astronauts.
Of the 642 people who have entered space, 19 deaths aren’t many, as it’s only a fatality rate of 2.96 percent.
Even still, these deaths feel needless. Even into the 21st century and the 2020s, people who enter space still die. It’s always a risk.
The last reported incident happened between December 2022 and January 2023 to the crew of the Expedition 88 Soyuz MS-22. Coolant leaked, which fortunately didn’t kill anyone, but it goes to show that technology isn’t perfect, and things can happen.
Drones can keep people out of space, which prevents any risks or loss of human life caused by training or flight incidents.
People will probably always long to explore space to satiate their own curiosity, and on some missions, people over drones in space could be preferable.
Even reducing the number of people in space is better than nothing!
It’s more cost-effective
Going into space can be quite costly! You can easily spend $125,000 to $5 million for commercialized suborbital trips.
NASA-supported trips that send out astronauts for space exploration and not fun don’t come cheap either. Between building the ship, hiring the crew, training the crew, and preparing for launch, NASA spends billions of dollars.
We’re not saying it’s inexpensive to design, manufacture, and engineer a drone, especially one with space-faring capabilities. Until drones that can enter space become more mainstream, then creating these drones will always come with a hefty price tag.
That said, the price tag is certainly lower than sending people into space!
Will the average consumer drone ever be able to go to space?
As of current, a variety of obstacles prevent consumer drones from entering space. Let’s go over them now.
First, there’s the aforementioned gravity issues.
Gravity weakens as you leave earth’s orbit. If you have a hard time controlling your drone on earth, imagine how much more unpredictable the UAV will become once gravity behaves differently than what you’re used to.
Lower gravity does allow a drone to fly using less power than it would need to do the same here on earth, but remember, space also has no air.
Therefore, a consumer drone would need an advanced propulsion system to handle the reduced rate of gravity.
Atmospheric pressure refers to the rate of pressure by weight that’s exerted on our atmosphere, be that earth or space.
Like gravity decreases in space, so too does atmospheric pressure. To overcome this issue with Ginny, NASA designed the drone’s propellers at a faster rotation speed to better handle variations in pressure. The props are also a lot larger than a normal drone.
Consumer drones would have to make similar advancements to get these UAVs up to speed for space exploration.
Earlier, we discussed that space is very cold. Temperatures drop and linger into the negatives. Those temps can prevent a drone battery from working, which means you can’t turn your UAV on.
Even if you could get the batteries on, keeping them on would present a whole different challenge.
NASA overcame this issue by building a heating component into the battery compartment to keep the batteries at operating temperature. Consumer drones would need a similar feature for the UAV to work in space.
The thought of a drone in space isn’t some futuristic concept. It’s already happened thanks to NASA, and future space exploration via drones will surely follow.
As of current, we’re nowhere near the point where a consumer drone for recreational or commercial purposes is ready to enter space, but you can never say never. Technology moves at the blink of an eye, after all!