Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

The slingshot effect

It is a counterintuitive fact that a spacecraft can pick up speed by swinging around a planet, if arrives in the opposite direction compared to the planet's motion. Although there is no physical contact, we treat the encounter as a one-dimensional collision, and analyze it in the center of mass frame. Figure i shows such a collision, with a space probe whipping around Jupiter. In the sun's frame of reference, Jupiter is moving.

The slingshot effect viewed in the sun's frame of reference. Jupiter is moving to the left, and the collision is head-on.

The slingshot viewed in the frame of the center of mass of the Jupiter-spacecraft system.

What about the center of mass frame? Since Jupiter is so much more massive than the spacecraft, the center of mass is essentially fixed at Jupiter's center, and Jupiter has zero velocity in the center of mass frame, as shown in figure j. The c.m. frame is moving to the left compared to the sun-fixed frame used in i, so the spacecraft's initial velocity is greater in this frame.

Things are simpler in the center of mass frame, because it is more symmetric. In the complicated sun-fixed frame, the incoming leg of the encounter is rapid, because the two bodies are rushing toward each other, while their separation on the outbound leg is more gradual, because Jupiter is trying to catch up. In the c.m. frame, Jupiter is sitting still, and there is perfect symmetry between the incoming and outgoing legs, so by symmetry we have v1f = -v1i . Going back to the sun-fixed frame, the spacecraft's final velocity is increased by the frames' motion relative to each other. In the sun-fixed frame, the spacecraft's velocity has increased greatly.

The result can also be understood in terms of work and energy. In Jupiter's frame, Jupiter is not doing any work on the spacecraft as it rounds the back of the planet, because the motion is perpendicular to the force. But in the sun's frame, the spacecraft's velocity vector at the same moment has a large component to the left, so Jupiter is doing work on it.

Last Update: 2009-06-21