What’s the Fastest Machine Ever Built?

A pro race car? Give me a break. A military jet? Nope. Maybe a speeding bullet? Does that count? Even if it does, no. Here’s a comparison between some of the fastest objects built by human hands.

(All speeds are approximate, as various sources give slightly different figures.)


ThrustSSC

ThrustSSC Jet Car

In 1997, the jet-propelled car dubbed ThrustSSC set a land speed record in the Black Rock desert in Nevada. It blasted past 760 miles per hour (0.34 km/s)—smashing through the sound barrier. After the record-breaking speed runs, there were actually marks on the ground where the shockwave had passed. Learn more about ThrustSSC.

Speed in miles per hour:
ThrustSSC speed graph

At that rate, here’s how far you could travel in five seconds:

The Golden Gate Bridge at Dusk by Stuck in Customs on Flickr

Part way across the Golden Gate Bridge.
Image credit: "The Golden Gate Bridge at Dusk" by www.stuckincustoms.com


SR-71 Blackbird

SR-71

Captain Eldon Joersz and Major George Morgan set a speed record for a crewed, air-breathing jet aircraft (as opposed to a rocket plane like the X-15) in 1976. They urged their Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird to more than 2,190 mph (0.98 km/s). By the way, this is about the same speed as the muzzle velocity of a M16 rifle. Learn more about the SR-71.

Speed in miles per hour:
SR-71 speed graph


Apollo

Apollo 10 Command Module

Now we’re picking up speed. Apollo 10, the “dress rehearsal” for the first moon landing, set the record for a crewed vehicle when it hit 24,790 mph (11 km/s) during the return to Earth in May of 1969. Learn more Apollo 10.

Speed in miles per hour:
Apollo speed graph


New Horizons

New Horizons Probe

Now we’re really moving. As you read this, the robotic spacecraft New Horizons is headed for Pluto and the uncharted territories of the Kuiper Belt. When it set out for the wild black yonder in 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft was traveling faster than any previous mission at the critical point of escape from Earth’s gravity. At this very moment it’s hauling its shiny metal posterior at more than 34,600 miles per hour (15.5 km/s)—more than 15 times the speed of a bullet leaving an M16. Learn more about New Horizons.

Speed in miles per hour:
New Horizons speed graph


Voyager

Voyager

In the 1970s and 80s, an intrepid pair of robot explorers completed a tour of the outer planets. Voyager 1 and 2 blew the world’s collective mind with pictures of volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io and giant storms on Neptune. All these decades later, both ships are still in daily contact with Earth as they approach the boundary of the solar system. Before sailing off into the dark, Voyager 1 got a speed boost from Saturn’s giant moon Titan, and its current speed relative to the sun is an astounding 38,100 miles per hour (17 km/s). Voyager 1 is now so far away that when it calls home, it takes more than 16 hours for the radio signal to arrive. Learn more about Voyager.

Speed in miles per hour:
Voyager speed graph


Helios

Helios Probe

In 1974 and 1976, NASA launched a pair of German probes called Helios I and II. When their highly-elongated orbits swung them close by the sun, they reached speeds in the neighborhood of—get this—157,000 miles per hour (70 km/s). Helios II was the speedier of the two by a hair, making it the fastest man-made object in history. For all that unimaginable speed, the Helios probes traveled at only 0.000234 times the speed of light. Learn more about Helios.

Speed in miles per hour:
Helios speed graph

At that speed, here’s how far you could travel in five seconds:

SF to Lake Tahoe

From San Francisco to Lake Tahoe by way of Sacramento...in five seconds.
Image credits: Stuck in Customs, Thomas Hawk, kangotraveler, TruffShuff, SteveD. on Flickr


The winner? A space robot, of course. It’s a bit of a split decision, though. Even though Helios II is, by far, the fastest machine ever built, it’s no longer in service. So the fastest thing in the skies right now that’s still “alive” is Voyager 1. It’s cruising at 70 times the speed of a jet liner, 24 hours a day, closer every moment to leaving the solar system forever…and setting out for the stars.

About

Your lead robot rider since 2005. Writer, photographer, science advocate. billdunford.com

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3 comments on “What’s the Fastest Machine Ever Built?
  1. Jim Norcal says:

    Our technological feats continue to amaze. I just hope we continue to tackel the mysteries of space in person, one way or another, instead of abandoning our progress due to tough economic times. It’s something we humans must do if we want to survive down the road.

  2. Bill says:

    Agreed. By the way, the Juno mission team wrote in to note that at the moment of insertion into Jupiter’s orbit in 2016, that probe will hit a very respectable 60km/s.

  3. Matthew Coles says:

    Excellent comparison. Puts it all in understandable perspective. Fascinating.

1 Pings/Trackbacks for "What’s the Fastest Machine Ever Built?"
  1. [...] Just how fast is the spacecraft moving now? Try 73,800 mph (118,700 kph) relative to the sun. That’s more than 30 times the speed of a bullet leaving the muzzle of an M16 rifle. (To compare this to other fast machines, check out this post.) [...]

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