How To Get To Mars In 1 Minute And 7 Seconds

Mars photographed with the C2 coronagraph on SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) earlier this morning. SOHO uses a disk to block the sun’s light so astronomers can study its atmosphere called the corona. Mars appears next to the sun only because it’s in the same line of sight. The planet’s actually in the distant background. Credit: NASA/ESA

On April 17 the Red Planet and Earth will line up on opposite sides of the sun, an event called solar conjunction. Other than not being able to see Mars because it’s hidden in the solar glare, the event has one real consequence for earthlings. We’ll explore that in a minute. Let’s just say that since the two planets now sit at opposite ends of the seesaw, Mars is about as far away as it gets, winking at Earth across a distance of 225.7 million miles. Compare that to 35 million when we’re closest.

That’s OUT THERE. Even light, traveling at 186,000 miles per second, takes 20 minutes to cross the gulf separating Earth from Mars. That means a 40 minute round trip for radio communications between the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers and mission control.

Screen grab from the “How Far is it to Mars?” site that give you a taste for how far the moon and Mars are from Earth. Click to go there. Credit: David Paliwoda and Jesse Williams

How would you like to get a feel for that distance? Understanding that time is precious, we’ll go easy on you by making the journey when Mars is closest to Earth. Normally it would take about 150 days to travel to the Red Planet using current technology. We’ll arrive quicker by accelerating to 3 times the speed of light. Even at that pace, you might be surprised how long it takes to arrive. Click HERE or on the image above to take the free journey. Bon voyage!

Curiosity drilled two holes in the “John Klein” rock in early February and gathered the powdered tailings to analyze its composition. The holes are each 2/3″ or 16mm across. On March 26, the rover used its powerful ChemCam laser to repeatedly zap the drilled powder, creating a row of tiny pits. The vaporized rock emitted light that was analyzed by Curiosity to determine its makeup. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Let’s return to the consequences of a Mars solar conjunction. As described in this earlier blog, Mars’ close alignment with the sun does affect our ability to communicate with the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers. Signals sent from Earth pass directly along the sun’s line of sight en route to Mars where they could be corrupted by solar radiation storms and electrified particles in the sun’s corona.

Interesting white rocks scattered about where Curiosity is stationed in Yellowknife Bay in Gale Crater. Notice how rounded some of the other pebbles are – possibly from water erosion. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s no big deal if bits of information go missing in a transmission from Curiosity, but if a bad command were sent from Earth, it might cause the robot to seize up or do damage to itself. To avoid potential problems, NASA has suspended communications for the remainder of April. Each day, Curiosity sends daily beeps to Earth telling mission control “I’m still here.”

Cool “aerial” view of Mt. Sharp inside Gale Crater (where Curiosity landed) taken by the orbiting Mars Odyssey satellite. The layering in the mountain at upper left may have been made when sediments were deposited by flowing waters. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL/ASU

9 Responses

  1. Lynn

    Hi Bob,
    Can you tell me if this was really said, as it is saying that stephen hawkings is saying that we would only have another 1000 years, at least I think that’s what it means, but I see this article on another site and it was a video of him and a cartoon lady and just saying the same thing with some baloney added to it, it looked like a cartoon, so that’s why i’m wondering if it is just a hoax, thanks if you know anything about it, seems rubbish but it’s all over google and I remember seeing a video of stephen hawkings but it turned out that was a hoax too. 🙂

    1. astrobob

      Yep, that’s what he said. He’s assuming humanity will annihilate itself through nuclear war, etc. Sounds like he could be right, but remember, people, whether they be physicists or charlatans, have been predicting the end of the species for a long time. Of course, we haven’t had the means to destroy everyone (or most of us anyway) until recently. Given a 1000 years of nuclear proliferation, self-destruction’s a reasonable possibility or a least a setback to medieval-style living for a small minority of humans.

      1. Wayne Hawk

        Aloha Astro Bob, Lynn and Everyone!
        I absolutely LOVED the “pixel trip” to Mars. It’s amazing how much easier it is for the “common” person to grasp the vastness of space when put into much smaller units of measure. Mahalo for including that!
        As far as Prof. Hawking’s prediction, well, he’s always been a kind of “doom and gloom” type of physicist. I started to really pay attention to him after the great Carl Sagan passed away and have noticed quite a stark difference between the two. Where Carl Sagan was much more an optimist of the human species, Stephen Hawking is seemingly just as pessimistic and has quite a “darker” attitude of us. Actually, not just of us but apparently any other intelligent life forms in the universe since he voiced his “warning” about putting a plaque on the Pioneer 10 AND 11 spacecraft and/or “probes” that are STILL traveling beyond our solar system. He thought it very unwise of us to put so much information (and directions to our planet) on something that we are sending into an area we know very little about and may end up in the “hands” of extraterrestrials that don’t have the human races’ best interests as a priority. Who knows? He may be just as correct as he is incorrect. When it comes to the unproven/unknown, all we can do is SPECULATE.
        I have a feeling this statement has gotten more attention than usual since North Korea has made threats about their launching missiles at our military bases near/around them (very possibly including Hawaii, where I live, gulp!). Were it not for those threats, this “prediction” of his may very well have simply gone the way of many of his other “dire” ones. Meaning, in one ear and out the other.
        Yes, there is no argument from me that he is a highly intelligent man, however, he doesn’t seem to be very WISE. I (and many others I know) have more faith in human beings and would find it hard to believe any SANE and emotionally stable human being would actually USE nuclear weapons because it’s such an obvious NO WIN situation for everybody and most every thing! Agree?
        Aloha For Now!

        1. astrobob

          Hey Wayne,
          I really tend to be optimistic like yourself about many things – even the weather when it comes to astronomy! I think Hawking worries too much (the plaque is a good example of that) but he does make a good point about destroying ourselves or at least a great many of us through our own devices. If only people like my mom could run the world, I think we’d be better off. Sadly, running off to populate other worlds won’t solve the core problem – insecurity resulting in the amassing of power. No matter where we go, we bring the bright and troubling aspects of humanity.

          1. Botond

            Hello Bob,
            Nice post about Mars and Curiosity. I just want to add to what you said that while I agree with Hawking’s “prediction”, you really put your finger on the real problem: humans. We can not run from our nature and foolish ways. There needs to be a fundamental change in human thinking before we can try to save ourselves. Seeing as population roughly doubles every 50 years and we already have food/water/space shortages I don’t really want to imagine the world in 100 years or 500, having many times the current population. At best we would descend into savage cannibal animals even without a war. You have to agree that right now we are really close to the edge of a disaster. Technology will not solve our problems in useful time as long as we keep fueling wars instead funding radical new technologies and we raise consumerist sheep instead of well educated decent humans.

  2. Lynn

    Hi Bob and Wayne,
    Thanks for the reply, but some i’ve been reading is saying we have a 1000 year’s left and some others are saying within the 1000 years and could be 200, so is it a 1000 years Bob, and to understand is it either climate or nuclear that’s the most threat he’s meaning.
    I just think it’s a very bold statement to make, which I’m sure a lot of people will either agree or disagree with and i’m sure there will be someone else not to far away with some other prediction of our beautiful planet and that it is going to end, but even if there was a way of sending us to some other habitable planet, I think I would chose not to, its just a worry with things like this, and more so for our children and grandchildren, what kind of earth are we going to leave them with, (and i’ve just found out that my daughter is expecting my first grandchild) i’m so excited 🙂 Thanks Bob again for all your help and great blogs as usual

  3. Steven

    I think that if any extraterrestrial civilization is advanced and determined enough to come here to destroy us, they probably won’t need a plaque on some ancient probe floating just outside our solar system. A civilization like that would not need our directions. I think Hawking is overestimating the human race a little there. I’m optimistic as well. As soon as humans start colonizing Mars (and beyond, we shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket), I see no reason why we couldn’t live on for many millions of years to come. Given what we have done on earth so far, I’m not sure if we should be happy about that though 🙂

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