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Aerobraking is a technique used by spacecraft in which it uses drag within a planetary atmosphere to reduce its velocity relative to the planet.

All interplanetary vehicles must change their velocity in some way upon arriving at the destination planet, and the required velocity changes are usually on the order of several kilometers per second. The primary appeal of aerobraking is that the vehicle can save rocket fuel by using aerobraking to perform much of the necessary velocity change. One main caveat applies: the aerobraking process takes very long (6+ months at Mars).

Although the theory of aerobraking is very well developed, it is still a difficult maneuver to perform. It is necessary to have detailed knowledge of the character of the target planet's atmosphere in order to plan the maneuver correctly, and even then success is not guaranteed.

Aerobraking has been used extensively over the decades by spacecraft orbiting Earth as a means to remove their orbital velocity and return to the surface. This removes a large amount of kinetic energy over a short period of time, most of which is converted into heat by shock heating the air ahead of the spacecraft. Spacecraft require a sturdy heat shield to survive the maneuver, as well as an aerodynamic shape and good resistance to acceleration. Aerobraking has also been employed in a similar manner by landers sent to Mars, Venus, and Jupiter.

Aerobraking can also be used in a less extreme manner, to adjust the velocity of a spacecraft without permanently reentering the atmosphere. For example, the Mars Global Surveyor Mars orbiter used its solar panels as "wings" to control its passage through the tenuous upper atmosphere of Mars to lower the apoapsis of its orbit over the course of many months. This sort of aerobraking does not result in as extreme temperatures or pressures, and so does not require as many design considerations.

See alsoEdit

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