We’ve been sending probes to Mars for quite some time now, and each time we do it there’s tremendous news coverage, the general public gets excited, and then...it dies down. Why is that? Well, for one reason, it’s not exactly a hop, skip, and jump to get there. Launching is step 1. Navigation is step 2. Waiting to get there is step 3 through 12, then finally we can worry about landing. So, all things told, how long does it take to get to Mars and can we speed it up at all?
1. It depends.
It’s astronomy, no answer is purely straightforward! The reason the time it takes to get to Mars varies is because there are so many variables, and remember that we’re shooting for a moving target. Mars varies where it’s at in its orbit, which means that there’s an optimal time window and a lot of not-so-optimal time. All things said, it can take between 150 and 300 days to reach Mars. The ideal time to launch in order to save fuel is during opposition, when Mars and Earth are closest to one another.
2. Could we shorten the time more?
When we’re talking about probes, 300 days isn’t too bad. However, when it comes to human travel, it’s ideal to shorten that time frame not only to save money, but to minimize risk. A few ideas to get to Mars faster include using nuclear rockets, electromagnetic thrusters, or perhaps even antimatter. The method will have to be thoroughly tested, of course, so it will probably be a while before we get the full benefits of faster travel times.
3. What about when you want to leave Mars?
If it can take up to 300 days to get to Mars, what about getting back? Since it can take almost a year to arrive, you can bet Earth will be in a much different place than when you left. You would need to wait at least three months for Earth and Mars to be lined up again, and if you’re using the same technology it would be another 150-300 days to return to Earth.