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How Long Does it Take to get to the Moon?

This article was originally written in 2008, but we’ve now updated it with this spiffy new video.

The lunar module above the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission (NASA)
In a recent interview, Richard Branson outlined his vision for Virgin Galactic’s future. Once tourists are taken into Earth orbit, it seems possible that space hotels could be developed for longer stop-overs in space. He then went on to mention that short “sight-seeing” tours to the Moon could be started from these ultimate hotels. If we are to make travel to the Moon routine enough to send tourists there, the trip would need to be as short as possible. So how long is the commute from the Earth to the Moon anyway? Man and machine have made that trip already, some took a very long time, and others were astonishingly fast…

Many missions have arrived in lunar orbit and landed on the lunar surface, but the means of getting there are widely varying. Whether a mission uses a rocket to blast its way there, or a subtle ion engine to slowly edge its payload closer, we have many options open to us when we travel to the Moon in the future. To this end, I’ll give a quick rundown from slowest to fastest flights to Earth’s natural satellite 380,000 km away.

Slowest: 1 year, 1 month and 2 weeks
The slowest mission to fly to the Moon was actually one of the most advanced technologies to be sent into space. The ESA SMART-1 lunar probe was launched on September 27th 2003 and used a revolutionary ion engine to propel it to the Moon. SMART-1 slowly spiralled out from the Earth to arrive at its destination one year, one month and two weeks later on November 11th 2004. SMART-1 may have been slow, but it was by far the most fuel efficient. The craft used only 82 kg of xenon propellant for the entire mission (ending with a lunar impact in 2006).

Not so slow: 5 days
Chang\'e-1 lunar mission (NASA)

The SMART mission is an oddity as it is by far the longest mission to the Moon, the rest of the missions took a matter of days to reach lunar orbit. China’s Chang’e-1 mission was launched from Xichang Satellite Launch Center on October 24th 2007 but sat in Earth orbit til October 31st when it began its transit to the Moon. It arrived in lunar orbit on November 5th. Chang’e-1 therefore took five days to cover the distance, using its rocket boosters.

Manned missions do it quicker: 3 days, 3 hours, 49 minutes
Next up, the Apollo missions in comparison were fairly quick to reach the Moon. The Apollo 11 astronauts were launched atop a huge Saturn V multi-stage rocket on July 16th 1969 from Kennedy Space Centre and sent quickly on their way. They reached lunar orbit after only three days in space on July 19th 1969.

Even the first was fast: < 2 days
The Russian Luna 1 probe, the first manmade object to flyby the Moon (NASA)

The first ever mission to the Moon was the Soviet Luna 1 probe that completed a flyby in 1959. This basic, but pioneering probe was launched on January 2nd and flew past the Moon by a few thousand kilometers on January 4th. It only took 36 hours to make the trip, therefore travelling an average speed of 10,500 km/hr.

Record breaking, fast-track to the Moon: 8 hours, 35 minutes
NASAs New Horizons mission (NASA)

By far the fastest mission to fly past the Moon was NASA’s New Horizons Pluto mission. This mission had a speedy launch, rockets powering the probe to over 58,000 km/hr to give it a good start on its long trip to the outer Solar System and Pluto. Although this is impressive, it’s worth keeping in mind that New Horizons was not slowing down to enter lunar orbit (like the Moon-specific missions above), it was probably still accelerating as the Moon was a dot in its rear view window. Still, it took eight hours and thirty-five minutes to cover the 380,000 km distance. Impressive.

So, space tourism companies have a few options for their sight-seeing tours around the Moon. They could offer long cruises, gently gliding to the Moon, using ion engines to slowly let the tourists take in the views, or they could opt for the exhilarating rocket ride of a lifetime, getting tourists there and back in a day or two… not sure which option I’d prefer…

References:
http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/nmc/spacecraftDisplay.do?id=2003-043C
http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/missions/profile.cfm?MCode=CHANGE1
http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/nmc/spacecraftDisplay.do?id=1959-012A

http://lunarscience.nasa.gov/kids/book/export/html/31

Original publication date April 10, 2008

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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jonathan Engstrand May 12, 2008, 1:54 AM

    The sooner we start space touring and colonization the better. Humanity needs to span outwards to survive.

  • B0B June 4, 2008, 1:19 AM

    its rubbish

  • merryprankster1963 August 29, 2008, 7:22 AM

    I have to agree with Richard Branson. Why not build hotels in space? That way the tourists can travel to the space hotel in a standard rocket (where they can experience the thrill of high g-forces). Thenonce they get to the space hotel, wait a few hours or days experiencing weightlessness, then take a shuttle to the Moon, using the Earth’s gravity as a slingshot effect to reduce fuel costs, then voila, the moon! On the return trip back to the space hotel, they can use the Moon’s gravity in a similar slingshot effect to get back to Earth. Of course, only the filthy rich tourists will help pay for the luxury of going to the Moon, while the rest of us cretins will grumble and complain, at least in the beginning. Someday going to the Moon will be comparitively expensive as having a car, or a personal computer. Does anyone remember how expensive they were when they first came out???? :D

  • Omar Sheira September 27, 2008, 11:13 PM

    Rocket Maaaaaan! It would be cool to go up there.

  • Luis D Rey November 26, 2008, 9:11 AM

    Are humanity close to build a space ship capable of 1G constant acceleration as Phil Jackson says?

  • Andy F December 21, 2008, 3:57 PM

    I hope Branson’s Lunar Service is better than Virgin Media Broadband and Virgin Trains, which are appalling – otherwise it is a belt ‘n’ braces job.

  • Jerry Spenelly December 29, 2008, 10:02 PM

    this is some verry interesting information. how long would this even take?

  • James Davis January 3, 2009, 4:39 PM

    For fuel cost’s sake, because I’m assuming that rocket fuel costs quite a bit, why not consider an H2O electrolysis based rocket? Have a huge water tank, a small nuclear reactor onboard (or some other high energy production device), then split the water into HHO and burn it for the fuel.
    It might make hydrolygists upset if a considerable amount of Earth’s water is taken out of our atmosphere never to be recollected, but humans use now and worry later right?

  • jack January 13, 2009, 2:43 PM

    i what to no how long does it take to get to the moon fast

  • stanley hamilton January 25, 2009, 8:52 PM

    can i get a dvd of the solar for my home?

  • Love Gosslins and Duggars! February 2, 2009, 10:08 AM

    What is the average time to get to the moon?? PLease I really want to know…

  • Alex Cassell February 5, 2009, 1:36 PM

    I can’t wait until all of this becomes a reality!!!

  • hariet May 11, 2011, 11:27 PM

    it is sooooooooooooo amazing how fast you can get to the moon!

  • Martins May 12, 2011, 1:38 PM

    Want to take a ride to the moon! well am Gone…… i´ll be back in 17.10hrs

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