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Generally, a flyby in spaceflight is a maneuver in which a spacecraft, normally a space probe, passes by in orbit of a celestial object such a planet or sun to gather data on it. This method is further helped by high powered sensor installed by the probe to help it gather its target data. The procedure is quite simple. One of the big challenges is that a spacecraft is already traveling at high speeds as it approaches its target. Since friction is almost non existent in space, inertia is very difficult to over come so the only way to slow down the craft is to use either a lot of precious fuel or a more efficient method called aerobraking. Aerobraking is a method by which the space probe uses the friction of a planet’s atmosphere to slow down to an acceptable orbit speed. This solves the fuel dilemma. The craft then has to enter an orbit close enough to the surface to gather data.
For a star like the Sun, a craft has to be careful how close it will get or else it will pulled and burnt up. In the case of planets, the ball park range is somewhere around 120 km from the surface. The craft then does a number of passes to gather data.
Flybys are crucial to proper data gathering in space exploration. Thanks to this flight maneuver we have been able to learn more about the planets in our solar system, our sun, and the asteroid belt. The vast information we have gathered has helped to hypothesize what are the special conditions of life and is laying the foundations of future manned space exploration.
In all, over 20 space probes have been sent into space and have performed flybys to gather data. The very first would be said to be Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite. It took sample data of the outer limits of the Earth’s atmosphere. The Russian space program eventually launched a lunar orbiter that used the same process. NASA has sent the most planetary probes. The most famous are the Voyager probes and the Mars probes. The information gathered by the Voyager program helped us learn to more about the outer solar in particular, especially the gas giants until the 1970s we had very little data on.
Space probes and their exploratory maneuvers, like flybys are an important to the future of space exploration gathering the information that will make future missions possible.
If you enjoyed this article there are others on Universe today that you will enjoy. There is a very interesting article about a flyby that the Cassini probe did last year over one of Saturn’s moons. There is also another great article about the flyby of the Messenger probe over Mercury.
There are also other great resources on the internet. NASA has an article that goes into detail about the Mercury Messenger mission. There is also an interesting NASA article about Mars probes and their history.
You can also listen to Astronomy Cast. Episode 115 The Moon Part 3 talks about how lunar probes are laying the foundation for mankind’s return to the moon.