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How long will it take to get to Mars? Travel time to the Red Planet depends on several factors including the position of the planet and available technology. (Image credit: dottedhippo via Getty Images)
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If you wanted to travel to Mars, how long would it take? The answer depends on a number of factors, ranging from the position of the planets to the technology that will get you there.
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According to NASA (opens in a new tab), a one-way trip to Mars will take about nine months. If you want to make a round trip, all in all, it takes about 21 months because you have to spend three months on Mars to make sure that Earth and Mars are in the right location to get home.
We look at how long it would take to travel to the Red Planet using available technology and explore some of the factors that will affect travel time.
To determine how long it will take to reach Mars, we need to know the distance between the two planets.
Mars is the fourth planet from the sun, and the second closest to Earth (Venus is the closest). But the distance between Earth and Mars changes as it orbits the sun.
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In theory, the closest that Earth and Mars will come to each other is when Mars is at its closest point to the sun (perihelion) and Earth is at its farthest (aphelion). This would make the planet just 33.9 million miles (54.6 million kilometers) across. However, this has never happened in recorded history. The closest recorded approach of the two planets occurred in 2003 when they were just 34.8 million miles (56 million km) apart.
The two planets are furthest away when they are both farthest from the sun, on opposite sides of the star. At this point, the distance can be 250 million miles (401 million km).
The average distance between the two planets Earth and Mars is 140 million miles (225 million km). The distance between two planets affects how long it takes to travel between the two. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech) (opens in new tab)
Light travels at approximately 186,282 miles per second (299,792 km per second). Therefore, light shining from the surface of Mars will take the following time to reach Earth (or vice versa):
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The fastest spacecraft is NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, as it continues to break its own speed record as it approaches the sun. On November 21, 2021, the Parker Solar Probe reached a top speed of 101 miles (163 kilometers) per second during its 10th closest flyby of our star, which translates to 364,621 mph (586,000 kph). According to NASA’s statement (opens in a new tab), when the Parker Solar Probe comes within 4 million miles (6.2 million kilometers) of the solar surface in December 2024, the ship’s speed will be 430,000 miles per hour!
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is currently the fastest spacecraft ever launched. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben) (opens in new tab)
If the Parker Solar Probe were able to reach the speeds achieved during its 10th closest flyby of the Sun and deviate from its sun-focused mission to travel in a straight line from Earth to the Red Planet, the time it would take to reach Mars would be:
Of course, the problem with the previous calculations was measuring the distance between two planets as a straight line. The journey through the most distant from Earth and Mars will involve a direct trip through the sun, while the craft must move in orbit around the stars of the solar system.
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Although this is not a problem for closest approach, when the planets are on the same side of the sun, another problem arises. The figure also assumes that the two planets remain at a constant distance; that is, when the probe is launched from Earth when the two planets are at their closest approach, Mars will remain the same distance during the 39 days it takes the probe to travel.
But in fact, the planets are constantly moving in their orbits around the sun. Engineers must calculate the ideal orbit to send a plane from Earth to Mars. That number is not only a distance factor but also fuel efficiency. Like throwing an arrow at a moving target, they need to calculate where the planet will be when the ship arrives, not where it will be when it leaves Earth. the ship must also decelerate to enter orbit around the new planet to avoid overshooting.
How long it takes to reach Mars depends on where in orbit the two planets are located when the mission is launched. It also depends on the technological development of the propulsion system.
According to the NASA Goddard Flight Center website, the ideal lineup for a launch to Mars would get you to the planet in about nine months. The website quotes physics professor Craig C. Patten (opens in a new tab), from the University of California, San Diego:
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“Earth takes one year to go around the sun and Mars takes about 1.9 years (say 2 years for easy calculations) to orbit the sun. The elliptical orbit that takes you from Earth to Mars is longer than Earth’s orbit but shorter than Mars’ orbit. So , we can estimate the time required to complete this orbit by averaging the length of Earth’s orbit and the orbit of Mars. Therefore, it takes about one and a half years to complete an elliptical orbit.
“In the nine months it takes to reach Mars, Mars moves a considerable distance in its orbit, about three-eighths of the way around the sun. You must plan that when you reach the distance of Mars’ orbit, Mars is where you need to be! Practically, this that means you can only start your journey when Earth and Mars are properly aligned. This only happens every 26 months. That is, there is only one launch window every 26 months .”
That trip could be shortened by burning more fuel — a process that current technology doesn’t support, Patten said.
Emerging technologies can help speed up flight. NASA’s Launch System (SLS) will be the new workforce to carry future missions, and possibly humans, to the red planet. SLS is currently under construction and testing, and NASA is currently targeting a March or April 2022 launch for the Artemis 1 flight, the first flight of the SLS rocket.
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The robotic craft can make the trip in just three days. Photon propulsion will rely on powerful lasers to accelerate the craft to speeds approaching the speed of light. Philip Lubin, professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his team are working on Directed Energy Propulsion for Interstellar Exploration (DEEP-IN). That method can push a 220-lb. (100 kilograms) robotic craft to Mars in just three days, he said.
“There are new advances that take this from science fiction to science fact,” Lubin said at the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) fall symposium 2015. “There’s no known reason why we can’t do this.”
Here’s an infographic detailing how long it took for most historical missions to reach the Red Planet (orbit it or land on its surface). The launch date is included for perspective.
Explore NASA’s lunar exploration plans with the Moon to Mars overview (opens in new tab). You can read about how to get people from Earth to Mars and back safely with this informative article in the Conversation (opens in a new tab). Curious about the human health risks of a mission to the Red Planet? You may find this research paper (opens in a new tab) interesting.
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Daisy Dobrijevic joined in February 2022 as a reference writer who previously worked at sister publication All About magazine as a staff writer. Before joining us, Daisy completed an editorial internship with BBC Sky at Night Magazine and worked at the National Center in Leicester, UK, where she enjoyed communicating science to the public. In 2021, Daisy completed her PhD in plant physiology and also has a Master’s degree in Environmental Science, currently she is based in Nottingham, UK Have you ever wondered what it’s like to drive across the country? Perhaps you should rent an RV and travel in style. It takes about 45 hours, or six 8-hour days, to drive from coast to coast. You have to decide if you want to take one of the four coastal interstates or cross the country like your parents did. on US highways. If you have about three months to travel, you can
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