I'm trying to understand if it is only fuel efficiency that makes us use gravity assist, or we don't have enough rocket fuel in an average spacecraft to reach farther ends of solar system. Also, is there some other reason why gravity assists are used?

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    $\begingroup$ What rocket? A Saturn V? How heavy is the spacecraft? Potentially, you can boost the spacecraft out of the solar system entirely. $\endgroup$ Feb 5, 2016 at 10:42
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, exactly. Put another way, every mission planner has a budget and a desired time scale. Inconvenient and ugly but that's how it is. $\endgroup$
    – Puffin
    Feb 5, 2016 at 12:04
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    $\begingroup$ Spacecraft spend virtually the entire duration of the mission simply coasting (unpowered flight). $\endgroup$
    – user
    Feb 5, 2016 at 12:53

2 Answers 2


New Horizons was launched on a direct escape trajectory, so in theory we can go anywhere in the Solar System, and beyond, without a gravity assist, except for very close to the Sun, which we do not have the fuel to do without such measures (At least, not in a reasonable amount of time.)

Gravity assists just make the process cheaper, and allow for heavier payloads. New Horizons was able to do so because it was very small, to send a larger payload would be difficult. It did a flyby of Jupiter, not because it was required, but because it allowed the spacecraft to get there a bit faster. And quite frankly, there's almost no reason to go to the Outer solar system without doing a flyby of Jupiter first, as the speed improvement is quite large. The main exception would be that it limits when you can launch the mission, but that isn't a huge factor typically.

  • $\begingroup$ can you kindly through some light on direct escape trajectory or refer me a link...we can reach anywhere in solar system ? or we can reach anywhere with sufficient fuel to do science observations in its orbit ? kindly look into the undermentioned video link youtube.com/watch?v=0iAGrdITIiE it mentioned Jupiter in our reach...probably it was 40 years back for Voyager that's why but now we have technology to ??? $\endgroup$ Feb 9, 2016 at 18:07
  • $\begingroup$ Just because you can launch on an escape trajectory does not mean you can go anywhere in the solar system, unless by 'go anywhere' you mean a flyby. Actually getting into orbit around, say Jupiter requires a lot more Delta-V than just escaping the solar system entirely. $\endgroup$
    – Dan Hanson
    Oct 9, 2022 at 1:51
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    $\begingroup$ As New Horizons is well known to only do flybys of objects in the outer part of the solar system I think that point is clear enough... $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Oct 9, 2022 at 1:57

You need to understand that "enough fuel" is an incredibly crucial matter in space travel. Spacecraft are subject to Tyranny of Rocket Equation.

In short, if you want to bring your spacecraft and use fuel, say, somewhere around Mars, you need to bring it there, using more fuel to accelerate it out of Earth's orbit. To have that fuel, in order, you need more fuel in the second stage. And to accelerate the extra fuel in the second stage (plus the fuel in Earth orbit, and fuel around Mars), you need a lot more fuel in the first stage.

How much? On launch, the fuel and launch stages mass to actual scientific payload for distant solar system missions oscillates around 98-99%. Extra kilogram of payload around Pluto can be several tons of fuel on the launchpad.

And that all converts to rocket size - and enormous costs.

Therefore, any techniques that can save mass later in the mission - especially fuel mass - are absolutely essential to the budget.

Gravity assists mean free acceleration. You can save many tons of fuel on launchpad, and just use a rocket that is smaller and cheaper by a couple hundred million dollars.

Any mass can be accelerated, and the higher mass of the body you're making a fly-by against, the more acceleration can be achieved. Keyword: fly-by. You can't just launch from Earth and do a gravity assist while in LEO. But you can depart into "deep space" on an elliptic orbit (using engines and precious fuel) and encounter Earth later, performing a gravity assist.

About anything in Solar System, except for the Moon can be reached with benefit from gravity assists - although to reach nearest planets (Mars, Venus) they are often skipped, because the only thing we can really beneficially perform a gravity assist against, while going there, is the Moon, and it's too light to make any significant difference - launching at the perfect time to take least fuel on a direct transfer will cost less than waiting for the Moon and the target planet to align, then using the gravity assist. Of course, if the Moon happens to be in the right alignment at the right time, the orbital dynamics people happily tackle the opportunity and perform the assist anyway.

Thing is, planets move on their own schedule, and a trajectory that encounters one without spending a lot of fuel takes time. Therefore flights that use gravity assists usually take longer than direct encounters, like Hohmann Transfer. But they are significantly less expensive, and really, the savings go into many, many millions dollars.

Have a look at the trajectory of Rosetta. It performed 4 gravity assists and took 12 years to reach its destination. But it did reach the destination and sent good science. Probably if it just flew there directly, without all these assists, it would have taken some 4 years. But it couldn't, because that would about double the mission costs, and such money just isn't there.

  • $\begingroup$ "because the only thing we can really beneficially perform a gravity assist against, while going there, is the Moon" - um, you're forgetting the much bigger object that the Moon orbits around... $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Jun 20, 2019 at 0:07

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