A spacecraft traveling from Earth to an inner planet will increase speed because it is falling toward the Sun, and a spacecraft traveling from Earth to an outer planet will decrease speed because it is leaving the vicinity of the Sun.
Although the orbital speed of an inner planet is greater than that of the Earth, a spacecraft traveling to an inner planet, even at the minimum speed needed to reach it, is still accelerated by the Sun’s gravity to a speed notably greater than the orbital speed of that destination planet. If the spacecraft’s purpose is only to fly by the inner planet, then there is typically no need to slow the spacecraft. However, if the spacecraft is to be inserted into orbit about that inner planet, then there must be some way to slow the spacecraft.
Similarly, while the orbital speed of an outer planet is less than that of the Earth, a spacecraft leaving the Earth at the minimum speed needed to travel to some outer planet is slowed by the Sun’s gravity to a speed far less than the orbital speed of that outer planet. Thus, there must be some way to accelerate the spacecraft when it reaches that outer planet if it is to enter orbit about it. However, if the spacecraft is accelerated to more than the minimum required, less total propellant will be needed to enter orbit about the target planet. In addition, accelerating the spacecraft early in the flight will reduce the travel time.
Rocket engines can certainly be used to increase and decrease the speed of the spacecraft. However, rocket thrust takes propellant, propellant has mass, and even a small increment Δv (delta-v) in velocity translates to far larger requirement for propellant needed to escape Earth’s gravity well. This is because not only must the primary stage engines lift that extra propellant, they must also lift more propellant still, to lift that additional propellant. Thus the lift-off mass requirement increases exponentially with an increase in the required delta-v of the spacecraft.
Since a gravity assist maneuver can change the speed of a spacecraft without expending propellant, if and when possible, combined with aerobraking, it can save significant amounts of propellant.
As an example, the Messenger mission used gravity assist maneuvering to slow the spacecraft on its way to Mercury; however, since Mercury has almost no atmosphere, aerobraking could not be used for insertion into orbit around it.
Journeys to the nearest planets, Mars and Venus, use a Hohmann transfer orbit, an elliptical path which starts as a tangent to one planet’s orbit round the Sun and finishes as a tangent to the other. This method uses very nearly the smallest possible amount of fuel, but is very slow — it can take over a year to travel from Earth to Mars (fuzzy orbits use even less fuel, but are even slower).
Similarly it might take decades for a spaceship to travel to the outer planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) using a Hohmann transfer orbit, and it would still require far too much propellant, because the spacecraft would have to travel for 800 million km (500 million miles) or more against the force of the Sun’s gravity. As gravitational assist maneuvers offer the only way to gain speed without using propellant, all missions to the outer planets have used it.
The main practical limit to the use of a gravity assist maneuver is that planets and other large masses are seldom in the right places to enable a voyage to a particular destination. For example the Voyager missions which started in the late 1970s were made possible by the “Grand Tour” alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. A similar alignment will not occur again until the middle of the 22nd century. That is an extreme case, but even for less ambitious missions there are years when the planets are scattered in unsuitable parts of their orbits.
Another limitation is the atmosphere, if any, of the available planet. The closer the spacecraft can approach, the more boost it gets, because gravity falls off with the square of distance from a planet’s center. If a spacecraft gets too far into the atmosphere, the energy lost to drag can exceed that gained from the planet’s gravity. On the other hand, the atmosphere can be used to accomplish aerobraking. There have also been theoretical proposals to use aerodynamic lift as the spacecraft flies through the atmosphere. This maneuver, called an aerogravity assist, could bend the trajectory through a larger angle than gravity alone, and hence increase the gain in energy.
Interplanetary slingshots using the Sun itself are not possible because the Sun is at rest relative to the Solar System as a whole. However, thrusting when near the Sun has the same effect as the powered slingshot described below. This has the potential to magnify a spacecraft’s thrusting power enormously, but is limited by the spacecraft’s ability to resist the heat.
An interstellar slingshot using the Sun is conceivable, involving for example an object coming from elsewhere in our galaxy and swinging past the Sun to boost its galactic travel. The energy and angular momentum would then come from the Sun’s orbit around the Milky Way. This concept features prominently in Arthur C. Clarke‘s 1972 award-winning novel Rendezvous With Rama; his story concerns an interstellar spacecraft that uses the Sun to perform this sort of maneuver, and in the process alarms many nervous humans.
Another theoretical limit is based on general relativity. The deepest gravity wells are those found around black holes, but if a spacecraft gets close to the Schwarzschild radius of a black hole, space becomes so curved that slingshot orbits require more energy to escape than the energy that could be added by the black hole’s motion.
A rotating black hole might provide additional assistance, if its spin axis is aligned the right way. General relativity predicts that a large spinning mass-produces frame-dragging—close to the object, space itself is dragged around in the direction of the spin. Any ordinary rotating object produces this effect. Although attempts to measure frame dragging about the Sun have produced no clear evidence, experiments performed by Gravity Probe B have detected frame-dragging effects caused by Earth.
General relativity predicts that a spinning black hole is surrounded by a region of space, called the ergosphere, within which standing still (with respect to the black hole’s spin) is impossible, because space itself is dragged at the speed of light in the same direction as the black hole’s spin. The Penrose process may offer a way to gain energy from the ergosphere, although it would require the spaceship to dump some “ballast” into the black hole, and the spaceship would have had to expend energy to carry the “ballast” to the black hole.