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I was actually answering this question today regarding velocities of spacecraft, and it occurred to me I've never really looked at this graph in much detail before:

Heliocentric velocity of Voyager 2 plotted against distance from the sun

As you can see, after leaving Earth, the craft rapidly slows down (an example of the inverse square law), and it remains below escape velocity until its encounter with Jupiter raises its velocity by over 10 km/s. It receives another ~8-9 km/s slingshot from Saturn and another 1 km/s assist from Uranus.

However, the interesting event occurs at Neptune: It appears to have had a gravitational slowdown of approximately ~2 km/s, as opposed to an assist. Why was this?

This indicates to me that it took the opposite trajectory of this graph:

Instead of approaching the planet from behind its velocity vector, it flew in from the front and out the back.

I am aware that gravitational slowdowns can have many interesting uses, ESA's mission proposal for a Pluto orbiter require a gravitational slowdown at Jupiter to reduce its velocity for Pluto orbit insertion, so I suspect this was either a result of a science or engineering constraint.

Is there any explanation for why this was done?

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  • $\begingroup$ There was a recent question (possibly, elsewhere) that had a picture showing whether it speeds up or slows down. I cannot for the life of me, find it. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Jul 25 '15 at 0:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Mazura space.stackexchange.com/a/9505/1028 $\endgroup$ – Vedant Chandra Jul 26 '15 at 12:22
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They wanted a close flyby of Triton. Triton's orbit is at a large angle to the ecliptic plane, and Triton was below Neptune at the time of Voyager's flyby, so they needed a course change that pointed "down" from Neptune.

From the Voyager Neptune travel guide (large PDF), page 118-119 of the PDF (page number 107-108 indicated on the page):

However, Voyager 1 passed (slightly) the leading hemisphere of Saturn, and Voyager 2 will pass (slightly) the leading hemisphere of Neptune. In these two cases, the spacecraft slowed down and the planets speeded up.

Neptune is Voyager 2's last planet. There being no next planet to seek (Pluto is not reachable; refer to Figure 6-2), Voyager 2 is not limited to passing Neptune through any particular gravity-assist corridor, and can instead concentrate on Neptune's large moon, Triton. Triton is as interesting to many planetary scientists as Neptune is. Triton is large enough to have an atmosphere. Its surface temperature and pressure are close to the triple point of nitrogen, raising the possibility of nitrogen clouds, frozen nitrogen pools, and snow/ice on the surface. In 1980, Andrey Sergeyevsky discovered that there was indeed a way to pass closely by both Neptune and Triton, thereby maximizing the scientific return from each. The means was a final application of the gravity-deflection concept. The spacecraft would pass very close to Neptune (within 4850 kilometers of the cloud tops) in order to bend its path by about 45 degrees to pass close by Triton 5.2 hours later (see Figure 6-1.) The close passage of Neptune occurs near its North Pole, and is just barely on the leading hemisphere. Voyager 2 will slow down slightly (and Neptune will speed up even more slightly) as a result of this final gravity assist.

Voyager trajectory at Neptune

Image from Voyager mission status report 91, via Wikipedia

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  • $\begingroup$ 1337joe's answer is great, but it was really the specifics of the mission I was interested in, and you've delivered. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – ReactingToAngularVues Jul 25 '15 at 22:07
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    $\begingroup$ It blows my mind that we can launch three-quarters of a ton of metal into space by essentially setting off a gigantic explosion under it and say, "In the next twelve years and five days, that thing will zing by three different planets and then reach a fourth planet, 4.5 billion km away and miss it by about the distance from Boston to Los Angeles." And then do it. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Jul 26 '15 at 11:28
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby we can not, not anymore anyway. Theres no such condition. Its just a special fluke that the planets happened to be this aligned at early space age. $\endgroup$ – joojaa Jul 26 '15 at 17:23
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    $\begingroup$ @joojaa That's a good point. But it's still amazing that we were able to exploit those lucky conditions so accurately and could do so again if presented with the opportunity. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Jul 26 '15 at 17:36
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    $\begingroup$ @EchoLogic my answer was more minimally correct (answer + quoted reference) than great, I'm glad this more complete answer is getting attention now $\endgroup$ – 1337joe Jul 26 '15 at 18:44
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The mission was to fly by the outer planets. Once it got to Neptune that mission was complete. From Wikipedia:

Because this was the last planet of the Solar System that Voyager 2 could visit, the Chief Project Scientist, his staff members, and the flight controllers decided to also perform a close fly-by of Triton, the larger of Neptune's two originally known moons, so as to gather as much information on Neptune and Triton as possible, regardless of Voyager 2's departure angle from the planet.

The probe was going into interstellar space no matter what by the time it got to Neptune (barring a collision with Neptune or a moon) and speed of getting there wasn't a concern, so they set up the pass to gain as much knowledge as they could.

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    $\begingroup$ It's worth noting that Voyager 1 did the exact same thing with respect to Titan at Saturn. $\endgroup$ – PearsonArtPhoto Jul 24 '15 at 14:19
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I posted this image in the question where are the solid motors of Pioneer and voyager spacecraft? Jupiter gravity assit trajectory plots It helps explain when a spacecraft speeds up for a gravity assist and when it does not.Use this image along with Neptune/Triton flyby posted above.Objects that flyby in front of a planet orbital motion or polar regions slow down. The other option for Voyager 1 or 2 was to use a gravity assist to visit Pluto.Voyager 1 visited Titan instead of a closer Saturn flyby for a Pluto missionVoyager 1 Saturn trajectory Another citation of the Voyager astrodynamics at Saturn to set up the Uranus-Neptune tour Voyagers at Saturn an astrodynamics study

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