Who’s the fastest of them all? (Credit: NASA)

The Fastest Spacecraft Ever?

By Caleb A. Scharf | February 25, 2013

Of all the spacecraft humans have launched, there have been some impressively fast movers. But which holds the record?

It’s not an entirely idle question. Apart from the wow factor, it’s an interesting yardstick for gauging our capacity to explore the cosmos, from familiar planets to the icy depths of space.

However, as I quickly discovered in writing this post, it’s not always an easy quantity to evaluate. For one thing, launch velocities differ from eventual cruise velocities. And fancy interplanetary maneuvers like the ‘gravity assist‘ can provide temporary speed boosts that have to be taken into account.

It also depends on what you measure velocity relative to. Far away from the Earth it makes more sense to work with heliocentric (sun-relative) measurements. And (as you’ll see) you need not be zooming away into the void at all to reach the highest sustained speeds.

We can start off easy though. Launch velocity is something very definite, tuned to the finest level possible in order to insert a mission into its optimal trajectory. The record holder is also easy to find, it’s the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper belt.

Read more: The Fastest Spacecraft Ever? | Life, Unbounded, Scientific American Blog Network.

Home           Top of page