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There are several ways to measure the speed of the fastest spacecraft and each definition gives credit to a different craft. We will look at four categories in this article: fastest escape speed from Earth’s atmosphere, fastest speed on a solar escape, fastest based on plain old-fashioned km/h, and fastest reentry speed.
The New Horizons space probe is the fastest spacecraft based on its velocity as it escaped the Earth’s atmosphere and gravity. The probe hit 57,600 km/h as it pulled away from its terrestrial tethers.
Next, the spacecraft with the highest rate of speed while on a solar escape trajectory(leaving our solar system) is Voyager 1 at 62,100 km/h. Currently, there are four space probes on trajectories to leave our solar system and expand our knowledge of what is beyond.
Based on pure speed per kilometer are the Helios solar probes. Helios 2 was the fastest during its closest solar approach, but both vehicles exceeded 250,000 km/h.
The fastest spacecraft while reentering Earth’s atmosphere was the Stardust probe. The comet sampling probe hit a comfortable 46,660 km/h while returning samples of comet material and interstellar dust.
Just for fun, the Galileo space probe holds the record for the fastest entry of the atmosphere of another planet. Galileo hit 173,770 km/h on its way to impacting the surface of Jupiter.
As you can see, the fastest spacecraft is based on a clear set of parameters. Hopefully, these answers meet your needs. Feel free to search out database if you have additional parameters you want to use.
We have written many articles about the fastest spacecraft for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the location of the New Horizons spacecraft, and here’s an article about New Horizons’ mission to Pluto.
We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Dwarf Planets. Listen here, Episode 194: Dwarf Planets.