The human race is not the fastest species of all. However, our technology has allowed us to build vehicles that help us overcome the speed of any living being. We have cars faster than a cheetah, planes faster than a falcon, and boats faster than a sailfish.
However, all those vehicles pale in speed if we compare them with the fastest devices that humanity has created, the spacecraft. Let’s go!
When we talk about spacecraft, there is always a confusion regarding what is classified as a “Spaceship,”. To clarify, a spacecraft is any technological device created by humanity designed to work in space. Suppose an eccentric billionaire with his space agency will send one of his luxurious electric cars into space.
In that case, this car cannot be considered a spaceship since it was not initially designed to work in space.
A spacecraft could not necessarily carry humans inside, the spaceships are classified ships into two types; firstly, we have crewed spacecraft, those that can carry humans inside, and secondly, uncrewed ships, those that cannot carry humans inside.
In this second place, we have artificial satellites and space probes. The difference between one and the other is that artificial satellites are designed to have a stable orbit around a celestial body such as a planet or a natural satellite.
While the space probes are designed to fulfill exploration missions in which they will travel throughout the solar system passing through several planets, and will not remain permanently orbiting any celestial body. The latter, the space exploration probes, are the ones that register the highest speeds.
WHY ARE SPACE PROBES FASTER THAN CREWED SPACECRAFT?
This is because crewed spacecraft must carry out their acceleration solely using human technology, while probes use a fuel-free acceleration system known as “Gravitational Assist.”
Gravitational assistance consists of harnessing the gravitational pull force of a celestial body to accelerate or propel a craft using only the thrust of gravity.
So far, crewed spacecraft have not been able to make the most of this as humans not have been sent beyond the moon, although a spacecraft has managed to reach very high speeds only with human technology. Space exploration probes can use this method to accelerate and propel themselves faster and faster, so the seven fastest spacecraft.
7 . Rosetta probe │ 30 km/s (108,000 Km/h)
The Rosetta space exploration probe was a European Space Agency (ESA) mission launched on March 2, 2004. Rosetta’s mission consisted of orbiting comet 67P/Churiumov-Guerasimenko and placing a lander called Philae on its surface, which would study the comet’s surface.
The probe was divided into two parts, the orbiter and the lander; both parts carried scientific instruments that included various specialized spectrometers to analyze the internal structure and surface of the comet, as well as the coma that surrounds it.
The need for fuel savings forced him to plan a complex flight path that included three flybys to Earth and one to Mars to obtain gravitational assistance, which allowed him to gain speed at each turn and thus reach the distant orbit of the target comet.
Thanks to gravitational assists and ten years of millimetrically planned trajectories, Rosetta reached 108,000 km/h and maintained them between November 2009 and August 2014.
6. Galileo Mission │ 48 km/s (172,800 km/h)
The Galileo space mission was a NASA mission that aimed to explore the planet Jupiter; the mission consisted of an orbiter, and a planetary insertion probe explicitly made to enter the dense clouds of Jupiter and not return.
On December 7, 1995, the planetary insertion probe penetrated Jupiter’s dense clouds, coming into contact with the gaseous planet’s atmosphere at 172,800 km/h (48 km/s).
The probe underwent a brutal deceleration of 228 g, and the temperature of the heat shield reached 16,000º C. It was submerged about 200 kilometers inside the Jovian atmosphere until high pressures and temperatures destroyed it. But fortunately, it managed to transmit the necessary data about the chemical composition and meteorological activity of Jupiter.
The probe weighed about 320 kg and measured approximately 1.3 m. It was also protected by a heat shield capable of withstanding the high temperatures produced at the entrance into Jupiter’s. Upper atmosphere at speeds of up to 69 km/s (250,000 km/h).
The orbiter remained operational, collecting scientific data from Jupiter’s atmosphere, magnetic field, ring system, and main satellites, such as Io and Europa until the mission ended in 2003.
Thanks to this, the Galileo mission contributed substantially to our knowledge of the planet Jupiter and its system of rings and moons. In particular, the structures observed on Europa’s icy surface suggest the existence of a subsurface ocean of liquid water, with critical astrobiological connotations.
Currently, due to the discoveries of the Galileo mission, it is thought that under the dense ice of the natural satellite Europa could exist aquatic living beings feeding on the organic compounds that eject marine volcanoes.
5. Juno probe │ 61.7 km/s (222,120 km/h)
Juno is a space exploration probe dedicated to studying the planet Jupiter. This probe is part of NASA’s New Frontiers space program.
New Frontiers consists of a series of space exploration missions conducted by NASA to investigate several planets in the solar system, including Jupiter, Venus, and the dwarf planet Pluto.
The Juno probe is one of these missions. Juno is designed to study the Jupiter atmosphere, its origin, structure, and evolution within the solar system and thus better understand its formation. Its main functions are to create a study and map of gravity in its magnetic fields and the auroras of Jupiter and its magnetosphere.
It will also study clues about the planet’s formation, core, water present in the atmosphere, mass, and winds, which can reach speeds of up to 618 kilometers per hour (384 mph).
After five years of travel in 2016 and more than 2800 million kilometers, the Juno probe arrived at Jupiter on July 5, 2016. Before starting the braking engines, Juno was accelerated by Jupiter’s immense gravitational field, reaching the incredible speed of 265,540 km/h concerning Earth. That is, 0.02% of the speed of light! It subsequently reduced its speed to just 1951 km/h.
4. VeGa Probe 1 │ 79.2 km/s (285 120 km/h)
The VeGa 1 and VeGa 2 probes were two space exploration probes launched by the USSR in 1984; these had the objective of exploring the planet Venus and Halley’s Comet; both probes were part of the project called “Halley Navy” that had as its primary objective to explore Halley’s Comet the last time it approached Earth in 1986.
The VeGa 1 probe passed 8,890 kilometers from the nucleus of Halley’s comet in 1986 at a staggering speed of 285,120 km/h (79.2 km/s) relative to the comet itself. This is the highest speed at which a spacecraft has flown over a body of the solar system without braking.
Vega 1 made its closest approach to the nucleus of Halley’s Comet on March 6, 1986, just 8,890 kilometers away. During the approach, the physical parameters of the nucleus, such as the dimensions, shape, temperature, and properties of the surface, were measured, as well as the structure and dynamics of the coma and the composition of the gas near the nucleus; this information has been key to understanding the nature of the comet.
3. Helios Probe 1 │ 96.2 km/s (346 320 km/h)
Helios was the name of two space probes built and operated by the Federal Republic of Germany and the United States in the mid-1970s. The mission of both probes was to study the influence of the Sun on the interplanetary environment. Helios 1 was launched on December 10, 1974, from Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex No. 41 aboard a Titan IIIE Centaur rocket.
Both probes entered very eccentric orbits, with aphelion at almost one Astronomical Unit and perihelion at only 0.3 AU, less distant from the Sun than Mercury. It recalls that solar system bodies orbit the Sun in trajectories that are not circular but elliptical, so that their distance is variable, which means that there is a point in the trajectory where they are closest to the Sun (Perihelion) and another where they are farther away (Aphelion). Satellites and probes also follow this pattern.
The Helios probes were, for many years, the fastest objects built by humanity as theytook advantage of the gravitational assistance provided by the Sun. Thus, on December 5, 1980, the Helios 1 probe reached 346,320 km/h (96.2 km/s), becoming the fastest spacecraft.
2. Helios Probe 2 │ 98.9 km/s (356,040 km/h)
In 1989 when Helios 2 was already out of service, on one of its approaches to the Sun, it managed to reach the staggering speed of 356,040 km/h (98.9 km/s), narrowly surpassing the speed of its sister Helios 1. The Helios probes were built for a lifespan of 18 months and completed their main missions in the early 1980s, although they continued to send valuable data until 1989.
They can no longer send data to Earth, it is known that they continue to orbit the Sun much closer than Mercury is, but since they do not receive any signal from them, their locations are unknown.
1. Parker Probe │ 163 km/s (587.00 km/h)
The Parker probe is the first device created by the human race that will fly over the solar corona; part of its mission is to study the structure and dynamics of the magnetic field of the solar corona, one of the most enigmatic areas for astronomers. The mission designed for the Parker Solar Probe uses repeated gravity assists from Venus to decrease its orbital perihelion to pass multiple times through the Sun and approach a distance of 6 million km, which is a lot if we consider that the average distance from the Earth to the Sun is 150 million kilometers.
Like the rest of the spacecraft we have talked about in this video, the Parker probe uses gravitational assistance to gain speed. Like the Helios probes, this speed is increased due to the strong gravitational attraction of the Sun.
In 2021, during its tenth flyby around the Sun, the probe took advantage of gravitational assistance and its closest approach to the Sun to gain a speed of 587,000 km / h, that is, 163 km / s, so you have an idea of how fast it is, with this speed you could travel from the city of London to New York City in approximately 35 seconds.
This is quite a milestone for human technology since, for the first time in history, we are reaching speeds that represent a good fraction of the speed of light, which gives us a light of hope to make longer journeys increasingly in reasonable periods.
It also means a lot to the engineers who managed to design an apparatus capable of withstanding the extreme temperatures that occur in the areas near the Sun without suffering damage to the electronic systems responsible for collecting all the information.
For now, the Parker probe still has a couple of flybys around the Sun and is expected to reach the staggering speed of 700,000 km/h at its closest approach; we will soon see if Parker can break his record and definitively become the fastest object ever created by humanity.
Until now all the fastest spacecraft have used gravitational assistance to reach such amazing speeds, the only disadvantage of this method is that to achieve these speeds it is necessary for the ships to pass through 2 or more celestial bodies that accelerate them with their gravity and this takes a long time, months or years.
Astronauts they cannot withstand so much time in space since weightlessness seriously affects our bodies, if we want to reach those speeds with manned spacecraft we will have to use methods that do not take years. Would you like to know which are the fastest ships that do not use gravitational assistance to reach high speeds and that are accelerated using only human technology?