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Here's How Ludicrously Fast A Space Probe Is

Your regular commercial airliner, like a Boeing 747 is fast. A super-spy jet like the SR-71 Blackbird is much faster than that, traveling at over three times the speed of sound. So how does a deep-space probe like New Horizons, which recently flew past Pluto, compare? Thanks to this animation, you can see it’s very, very fast indeed.


The animation was created by Clay Bavor, who works at Google in his day job. As he notes in his caption on it:

To put 36,000 mph in perspective, at that speed, you’d be able to fly from San Francisco to New York in about five minutes. Of course, you’d also be turned into a ball of searing hot plasma.


I guess we should be happy, then, that New Horizons wasn’t going at crazy speeds through our own atmosphere.

In case you can’t read the words on the video above because you’re illiterate (in which case HOW ARE YOU READING THESE WORDS), a 747 typically cruises somewhere around 550 miles per hour, the SR-71 was claimed to have hit 2,700 MPH, but New Horizons is zooming through space at a staggering 36,000 MPH.

In fact, part of the reason why New Horizons didn’t stop and orbit Pluto is because it’s just so damn fast. Part of the reason for that is because NASA wanted it to get to Pluto in a reasonable amount of time, but I suspect that most of the reason for that is because we’ve all grown up wanting to know how fast we could shoot something into the sky. And when you’re NASA, your idea of shooting something into the sky includes a gravity assist from Jupiter.

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Ash78, voting early and often

Tales from the New Horizons

There were a lot of things we couldn’t do in the New Horizons, but we were the fastest guys on the block and loved reminding our fellow aviators of this fact. People often asked us if, because of this fact, it was fun to fly the probe. Fun would not be the first word I would use to describe flying this thing. Intense, maybe. Even cerebral. But there was one day in our experience when we would have to say that it was pure fun to be the fastest guys out there, at least for a moment.

We listened as the shaky voice of a lone Cessna pilot asked Center for a readout of his ground speed. Center replied: “November Charlie 175, I’m showing you at ninety knots on the ground.” Just moments after the Cessna’s inquiry, a Twin Beech piped up on frequency, in a rather superior tone, asking for his ground speed. “I have you at one hundred and twenty-five knots of ground speed.” Boy, I thought, the Beechcraft really must think he is dazzling his Cessna brethren. Then out of the blue, an SR-71 pilot came up on frequency. You knew right away it was an Air Force jock because he sounded very cool on the radios. “Center, Aspen 20, ground speed check”. There was no hesitation, and the replay came as if was an everyday request. “Aspen 20, I show you at one thousand eight hundred and forty-two knots, across the ground.”

And I thought to myself, is this a ripe situation, or what? “Los Angeles Center, New Horizons, can you give us a ground speed check?” There was no hesitation, and the replay came as if was an everyday request. “New Horizons, I show you at twenty-nine thousand eight hundred and seventeen knots, across the ground.”

“Ah, Center, much thanks, we’re showing closer to thirty thousand on the money.”

For just one day, it truly was fun being the fastest guys out there.