Okay let’s look at aerobraking. This is a way to get free ∆v for deceleration We’ll look at the principle and then talk about its utility. First recall our gravity example but I’ll add an atmosphere to the planet.


Now the atmosphere is a source of friction and friction reduces your velocity. As you bang into gas molecules, you slow down. We can treat this as a third vector in the system, opposing our direction of travel (our initial velocity vector).


Back when we were first talking about vectors, we said that you add vectors by arranging them head to tail and finding the hypotenuse. This was a lie, of course, as all science education advances by correcting the lies told in earlier lectures. In fact you just connect the last head with the first tail, like so:


Oops. I crafted this example without figuring out ahead of time what it would do and it looks like this atmosphere is too dense for our maneuver! When science fiction stories talk about a “degrading orbit” this is what they mean if we’re being charitable: eventually atmosphere will drag you in if you’re too low.

However, that doesn’t have to be a crash! That could be a landing! In which case we saved the atmospheric vector from our ∆v resources. We totally meant to do that! Of course that’s not what that diagram represents since that enormous vector is our velocity and it does not look like a safe landing speed. Or angle. But that’s the principle and however much additional ∆v we have to spend to land safely, it’s reduced by the amount of drag provided by the atmosphere.

So let’s consider a hypothetical interception scenario — you are fleeing through space and the cops are after you. You have, let’s say, 7 units of ∆v and spend 2 planning a course to a safe planet. It’s months away and you’re committed and you now have only 5 units of ∆v. You’re saving some for slowing down at the far end — you need 3∆v to make orbit at your destination.

You: 5∆v

The cops spot you and match your course with 2 ∆v of their own. They have fast interceptors (high thrust for tactical corrections) but less reserves so let’s say they start with 5∆v. Now they have 3.

You: 5∆v

Cops: 3∆v

You spot the cops on your infrared telescope and track them for a couple of days, identifying their planned intercept point. You have a bunch of options. You have more total ∆v and if you know this you could burn more than they can afford to to change your course and correct back. If they spend any more than they have they won’t have the ∆v to slow down and stop somewhere to refuel. But if they aren’t tricked and don’t burn, then when you correct back they will still be on target.

You could also fake a course to a totally different location, spending maybe 3 more ∆v leaving you with 2. If the police correct for that they will be totally committed (they won’t be able to slow down so they are clearly going to try to kill you in a flyby and then count on other cops to save them from leaving the solar system) but you have some spare.

You: 2∆v

Cops: 0∆v

Maybe it’s not enough to make orbit around your original destination — you’ll be going too fast. But if you’re equipped with heat shields for aerobraking, you can steal 1∆v from the atmosphere and get the 3 you need to make orbit despite going way too fast!

Or maybe you won’t slow down! Maybe you’ll steal 1 ∆v from slingshotting your destination on order to head somewhere completely else!

You: 3∆v

Cops: 0∆v

Finding spare ∆v in the system geography is how you exceed your space craft’s specifications, and it’s a skill your character might have. Yes, we’re almost talking games now.

Since this is science fiction, what other sources of ∆v might be lying around a high tech industrialized star system?

4 thoughts on “aerobraking

  1. (Sorry if this reply is duplicate. I think it disappeared the first time)

    These articles are wonderful. I like the pragmatic example decision-making process with the space cops. Keep them coming!

    I’m about to reveal how clueless I am about these topics, but these are making me reflect on recent sifi fiction. Could weapon recoil provide ∆v significant enough to be strategic (assuming weapons use power that doesn’t steal from thrust capacity)? Or nearby detonations (does space conduct shockwaves)? It’s intriguing to weigh the ∆v cost of any sort of space confrontation or skirmish.

    How does starship mass impact ∆v strategy? I’m probably wrong but I’m assuming greater mass requires greater thrust to achieve the same vector, and more thrust requires more fuel or efficiency, which all rolls into a single measure of total ∆v capacity. But would reducing your mass increase ∆v capacity through fuel efficiency? (Mass also impacts gravitational vectors, right?)

    Does anything in space provide opportunity for aerobraking other than atmospheres? Renewable sources of ∆v reserves look increasingly important (e.g. rechargeable solar vs consumable fuel?).


  2. one option for clearing orbital junk is a jelly cloud. Particles punch through it, but pick up a bit of mass stuck to them and thus slow down, eventually into a decaying orbit.

    Now that seems like it wouldn’t scale up to a ship, as the extra mass from jelly is a function of surface area, and mass is a function of volume (for spherical lumps, actual ships may differ). It also wouldn’t scale because it relies on the particles slowly falling out of orbit over years, while a ship should have enough dV to laugh at this chewing gum on its shoe.

    Still – could you have a long tube full of sky that a ship passes through to shed dV? Maybe.
    I think a could of magnetic heavy dust might work better, espcially if they can turn their magentisim on or off for a precise dose of dV shift.

    And magenetics gets us to the Jovian magnetosphere, which is huge and mysterious and thus a valid fiction mcguffin for a few more years.

    Liked by 1 person

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