Fly-bys, or gravity assist manoeuvres, are now a standard part of spaceflight and are used by almost all ESA interplanetary missions.
Imagine if every time you drove by a city, your car mysteriously picked up speed or slowed down. Substitute a spacecraft and a planet for the car and the city, and this is called a gravity assist. These manoeuvres take advantage of the fact that the gravitational attraction of the planets can be used to change the trajectories, or the speed and direction, of our spacecraft on long interplanetary journeys.
As a spacecraft sets off towards its target, it first follows an orbit around the Sun. When the spacecraft approaches another planet, the gravity of that planet takes over, pulling the spacecraft in and altering its speed. The amount by which the spacecraft speeds up or slows down is determined by the direction of approach, whether passing behind or in front of the planet.
When the spacecraft leaves the influence of the planet, it once again follows an orbit around the Sun, but a different one from before, either on course for the original target or heading for another fly-by.
Monica Talevi | ESA
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