An Automated Mission is a mission in which a probe, or other unmanned spacecraft follows a preset path with minor adjustments to the course being made remotely. The unmanned spacecraft's path is set well before the launch, and takes into account hazards such as Asteroids, Meteorites, Solar Wind, and other such phenomenon , to make sure the unmanned spacecraft will reach it's destination with little damage. The destination is usually a place of interest for scientists stemming from new data received about the location, or an unknown phenomenon occurring at the location.
Preparation for Mission
Many months to years in advance of the scheduled mission start date, a mock mission is run within a laboratory involving everything the mission entails. A simulated flight with a simulated Time Delay is run and revised to be made as safe and efficient as possible. Once the flight plan is made, a plan is made for the ground probe, which is controlled within the same building with a time delay. The probe is on a mock surface, and the controls and mission plan are learned.
The unmanned spacecraft is launched into orbit by either a manned or unmanned rocket. Once in orbit, the unmanned spacecraft is controlled by Mission Control who sends it in the direction of their target. As the target location is quite far away, several techniques such as slingshot maneuvers are used to limit the use of Fuel. While on route to it's destination, mission control must make sure the unmanned spacecraft is following the correct path and that nothing threatens it.
In Orbit of Destination
Once the unmanned spacecraft reaches it's destination's orbit, several pre-established protocols will be followed, as the time delay to relay information to and from the craft can range from as little as a few minutes to a few hours. Pre-established protocols are made to make the mission as efficient as possible, as time is not necessarily on the side of the Mission Controllers. The unmanned spacecraft will do several things from orbit, such as take pictures in different filters to observe various activity in the atmosphere. Samples can also be taken of the atmosphere (If there is one) if the probe orbits low enough. For most unmanned spacecraft, this is the extent of their activity.
Ground Rover / Probe
In some cases an unmanned spacecraft will drop an unmanned rover, or probe on the surface of the destination planet or moon to take pictures, samples of the crust, and samples of the atmosphere (If one exists). As the ground probe doesn't have powerful communications, it links to the orbiting unmanned spacecraft to receive its instructions from mission control.
The power source of the unmanned spacecraft depends on how far from the Sun the probe will be travelling. If the probe is staying within the asteroid belt, solar panels are used. If the probe is venturing deeper then the asteroid belt, a nuclear power source will be used, as sunlight isn't a viable source of power. Ground rover's exclusively use a nuclear power source.
When a probe runs into an emergency, such as a malfunction, being struck by an extraterrestrial object, or something as simple as the camera being off kilter, it can mean disaster for the mission. When a major problem occurs, mission control is unaware till several minutes to hours later. This means that mission control may already be too late to fix the problem. If the problem can be fixed, a prompt, well thought out plan must be made as to not risk further damage to the expensive unmanned spacecraft.
In the Context of Spacesim
Spacesim's automated mission will be a simulated mission in which an unmanned spacecraft is sent towards an extraterrestrial object of interest, same as in a real automated mission. The mission will use software which will plot the course of the unmanned spacecraft, show where it is currently, and feature a time delay. The software will allow mission control to control it. The details, and starting date are currently unknown.