Humans have always been fascinated by celestial bodies, whether the stars, moons, or planets. While the continuous back and forth in the scientific community about Pluto being a planet or not is fascinating, it’s not the most exciting question.
How long it would take to get to Mars is far more pertinent, especially considering that several Mars Exploration Rovers have been exploring its surface for years, searching for signs of life. If they find it, taking a trip to Mars seems even more intriguing.
Still, before imagining what a tourist destination on Mars would look like, it’s essential to understand which factors determine the duration of the journey to Mars and what it takes to get there.
A Few Words About Mars
Before diving deeper into the distance between the Earth and Mars and what type of spacecraft you would need to reach the red planet’s surface, it’s essential to learn a little more about it.
As the fourth planet from the sun, Mars is Earth’s next-door neighbor. It resembles a desert but much colder, with an average temperature of -81° Fahrenheit. Mars is relatively easy to spot from Earth at nighttime, as it resembles a bright-red light, and its proximity makes us even more curious about it.
The visibility of Mars with the naked eye is precisely how the planet got its name and nickname. The ancient Romans named this rocky planet Mars after the Roman god of war, as the reddishness reminded them of blood. So the nickname “red planet” comes from the same color association.
It’s important to note that the red color occurs due to the oxidization of minerals or rust on the surface of Mars.
In terms of size, Mars is half the size of the Earth, though its volume is even six times less than our planet’s. Martian days are called “sols;” one year lasts 687 Earth days.
Mars also has seasons, but they last much longer than ours, and it has two moons, Deimos and Phobos. Mars’ moons don’t have enough mass to have gravity and are not spherical.
Another fascinating fact about Mars is that while it doesn’t have a ring now, it might have it in 50 million years when one of its moons crashes into it.
In our solar system, Mars has the biggest volcano. It’s called Olympus Mons, with a base size nearly as large as the state of Montana and a height that exceeds Mt. Everest six times over.
While Mars appears dusty and dry, it’s almost certain it had water in the past. There’s evidence of deltas, river valleys, and even lakebeds, and the planet experienced floods some 3.5 billion years ago. Water can still be found on Mars but in ice form and just under the surface of the planet’s polar regions.
Finally, Mars’s atmosphere doesn’t offer much protection against asteroids and comets because it’s thin and mostly made of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and argon.
Brief History of Mars Explorations
One of the best ways to understand how complicated it is to get to Mars and determine the length of the trip is to see the previous results of missions to Mars.
The first exploration of the red planet dates back to 1965 and the Mariner 4 spacecraft that reached it. However, the first U.S. spacecraft that landed on Mars was Viking 1 in 1975, and the journey took 304 days.
The Viking 2 orbiter arrived in 333 days and landed on Mars, and that expedition showed that some kinds of meteorites found on our planet came from Mars.
While the Viking program offered important insight, the Mars missions have vastly expanded in the 21st century, starting with the 2001 Mars Odyssey, the orbiter that arrived on Mars in 200 days and returned home with a whopping million images of the red planet.
Cut to over 20 years later, and we have one NASA lander on Mars called InSight and two Rovers, Curiosity and Perseverance. All the spacecraft took around 200 to 250 days to reach Mars and will be actively gathering data as long as it’s feasible. These spacecraft were designed to stay on Mars permanently.
How Far is Mars From Earth?
This might seem like a simple question that can easily tell you how long it takes to reach Mars from Earth. But that’s not how space travel works. While both planets orbit the sun, they don’t take the same time.
Remember, Mars’ year is 687 Earth days. So the distance between the Earth and Mars will vastly depend on where the planets are at specific times in their sun trips.
To get a better idea of how significant the distance can be, consider that the closest the two planets can be is 33.9 million miles, and the farthest is 250 million miles. It also means that at some point, Mars can be more distant from Earth than the sun, which is 93 million miles away from our planet.
But we should also consider the average distance between Mars and Earth, which amounts to 140 million miles.
Understandings the Close Approach
NASA and other space agencies worldwide exploring Mars choose when to send spacecraft and Rovers to Mars. They aim to get the spacecraft there as quickly and safely as possible.
That’s why they usually await Mars’ close approach to Earth, which is the point when Mars in its orbit is the closest to Earth. This event occurs approximately every 26 months, which is frequent enough to allow astronomers and astronauts to prepare but also rare enough for them to work hard to seize this opportunity.
It’s also vital to point out that the distance of this close approach isn’t always the same because both planets have elliptical orbits instead of circular. Plus, we have to account for gravitational tugging by other planets, especially Jupiter, which strongly affects Mars.
Still, the minimal close approach is 33.9 million miles, which only happens every 60,000 years. The last time Mars was this close to Earth occurred in 2003 when NASA sent their exploration Spirit Rover.
The distance between the red and blue planet at the time was 34.8 million miles, and the next time they’ll be this close is in the year 2287.
Traveling at the Speed of Light
Consider for a second that you could travel to Mars at the speed of light. How long would that take? As the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, you could arrive during the closest approach within 3.03 minutes, which is incredible to imagine.
At the farthest approach, traveling at the speed of light to Mars would get you there in 22.5 minutes, which is still quite impressive.
We also have to take in the average distance, which means getting to Mars would take just under 13 minutes. While these numbers are fun to explore and ponder, they are not the reality, at least for now.
However, we could consider NASA’s fastest spacecraft, the Parker Solar Probe, and see how long it would take to get to Mars.
This probe was created to explore the sun in a way that has never been done before, and as it approaches our star, it picks up speeds that have reached record levels at 101 miles per second, or 364,621 miles per hour, during its tenth close flyby of the sun.
Theoretically, if you could board the Parker Solar Probe for a trip to Mars, the closest possible approach would take 93 hours, the farthest around 686 hours, while the average time would be 384 hours.
Here’s the problem: These calculations only make sense if we consider the trip from Earth to Mars as one straight line. But the planets are in constant motion, and space engineers are required to calculate where Mars would actually be when the probe arrives.
According to some, the most probable time for a safe landing on Mars is around nine months, even in ideal conditions. However, a round-trip would take approximately 21 months, as you’d have to wait for about three months on Mars for the perfect conditions to be achieved again.
Are There Astronauts on Mars?
There are no astronauts on Mars, and no one knows when there will be. The Artemis program at NASA is dedicated explicitly to reaching this goal. Still, it’s essential to recognize that this is far more challenging than sending probes and Rovers to the red planet.
However, the Perseverance Rover contains unique spacesuit materials onboard that could one day be used by crews on Mars.
Because Mars’ atmosphere is considerably thinner than Earth’s, these materials will provide valuable information on how the radiation from the sun affects the suits and what improvements will be required.
Humanity Is Getting Closer to Mars
Many international space agencies, like NASA, and private space explorers, like Elon Musk and his SpaceX, focus on exploring Mars and its potential. But for now, the red planet is mysterious and a bit overwhelming. Still, massive progress has been made, and the next few decades will likely bring more fascinating details about the red planet.
For now, traveling to Mars is not possible for people, but that might change too. Either way, a well-planned trip will take around nine months unless you can get aboard the super-fast solar probe.