Between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter lies the Solar System’s Main Asteroid Belt. Consisting of millions of objects that range in size from hundreds of kilometers in diameter (like Ceres and Vesta) to one kilometer or more, the Asteroid Belt has long been a source of fascination for astronomers. Initially, they wondered why the many objects that make it up did not come together to form a planet. But more recently, human beings have been eyeing the Asteroid Belt for other purposes.
Whereas most of our efforts are focused on research – in the hopes of shedding additional light on the history of the Solar System – others are looking to tap for its considerable wealth. With enough resources to last us indefinitely, there are many who want to begin mining it as soon as possible. Because of this, knowing exactly how long it would take for spaceships to get there and back is becoming a priority.
The distance between the Asteroid Belt and Earth varies considerably depending on where we measure to. Based on its average distance from the Sun, the distance between Earth and the edge of the Belt that is closest to it can be said to be between 1.2 to 2.2 AUs, or 179.5 and 329 million km (111.5 and 204.43 million mi).
However, at any given time, part of the Asteroid Belt will be on the opposite side of the Sun, relative to Earth. From this vantage point, the distance between Earth and the Asteroid Blt ranges from 3.2 and 4.2 AU – 478.7 to 628.3 million km (297.45 to 390.4 million mi). To put that in perspective, the distance between Earth and the Asteroid Belt ranges between being slightly more than the distance between the Earth and the Sun (1 AU), to being the same as the distance between Earth and Jupiter (4.2 AU) when they are at their closest.
But of course, for reasons of fuel economy and time, asteroid miners and exploration missions are not about to take the long way! As such, we can safely assume that the distance between Earth and the Asteroid Belt when they are at their closest is the only measurement worth considering.
The Asteroid Belt is so thinly populated that several unmanned spacecraft have been able to move through it on their way to the outer Solar System. In more recent years, missions to study larger Asteroid Belt objects have also used this to their advantage, navigating between the smaller objects to rendezvous with bodies like Ceres and Vesta. In fact, due to the low density of materials within the Belt, the odds of a probe running into an asteroid are now estimated at less than one in a billion.
The first spacecraft to make a journey through the asteroid belt was the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, which entered the region on July 16th, 1972 (a journey of 135 days). As part of its mission to Jupiter, the craft successfully navigated through the Belt and conducted a flyby of Jupiter (in December of 1973) before becoming the first spacecraft to achieve escape velocity from the Solar System.
At the time, there were concerns that the debris would pose a hazard to the Pioneer 10 space probe. But since that mission, 11 additional spacecraft have passed through the Asteroid Belt without incident. These included Pioneer 11, Voyager 1 and 2, Ulysses, Galileo, NEAR, Cassini, Stardust, New Horizons, the ESA’s Rosetta, and most recently, the Dawn spacecraft.
For the most part, these missions were part of missions to the outer Solar System, where opportunities to photograph and study asteroids were brief. Only the Dawn, NEAR and JAXA’s Hayabusa missions have studied asteroids for a protracted period in orbit and at the surface. Dawn explored Vesta from July 2011 to September 2012, and is currently orbiting Ceres (and sending back gravity data on the dwarf planet’s gravity) and is expected to remain there until 2017.
The fastest mission humanity has ever mounted was the New Horizons mission, which was launched from Earth on Jan. 19th, 2006. The mission began with a speedy launch aboard an Atlas V rocket, which accelerated it to a a speed of about 16.26 km per second (58,536 km/h; 36,373 mph). At this speed, the probe reached the Asteroid Belt by the following summer, and made a close approach to the tiny asteroid 132524 APL by June 13th, 2006 (145 days after launching).
However, even this pales in comparison to Voyager 1, which was launched on Sept. 5th, 1977 and reached the Asteroid Belt on Dec. 10th, 1977 – a total of 96 days. And then there was the Voyager 2 probe, which launched 15 days after Voyager 1 (on Sept. 20th), but still managed to arrive on the same date – which works out to a total travel time of 81 days.
Not bad as travel times go. At these speed, a spacecraft could make the trip to the Asteroid Belt, spend several weeks conducting research (or extracting ore), and then make it home in just over six months time. However, one has to take into account that in all these cases, the mission teams did not decelerate the probes to make a rendezvous with any asteroids.
Ergo, a mission to the Asteroid Belt would take longer as the craft would have to slow down to achieve orbital velocity. And they would also need some powerful engines of their own in order to make the trip home. This would drastically alter the size and weight of the spacecraft, which would inevitably mean it would be bigger, slower and a heck of a lot more expensive than anything we’ve sent so far.
Another possibility would be to use ionic propulsion (which is much more fuel efficient) and pick up a gravity assist by conducting a flyby of Mars – which is precisely what the Dawn mission did. However, even with a boost from Mars’ gravity, the Dawn mission still took over three years to reach the asteroid Vesta – launching on Sept. 27th, 2007, and arriving on July 16th, 2011, (a total of 3 years, 9 months, and 19 days). Not exactly good turnaround!
A number of possibilities exist that could drastically reduce both travel time and fuel consumption to the Asteroid Belt, many of which are currently being considered for a number of different mission proposals. One possibility is to use spacecraft equipped with nuclear engines, a concept which NASA has been exploring for decades.
In a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) rocket, uranium or deuterium reactions are used to heat liquid hydrogen inside a reactor, turning it into ionized hydrogen gas (plasma), which is then channeled through a rocket nozzle to generate thrust. A Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NEP) rocket involves the same basic reactor converting its heat and energy into electrical energy, which would then power an electrical engine.
In both cases, the rocket would rely on nuclear fission or fusion to generates propulsion rather than chemical propellants, which has been the mainstay of NASA and all other space agencies to date. According to NASA estimates, the most sophisticated NTP concept would have a maximum specific impulse of 5000 seconds (50 kN·s/kg).
Using this engine, NASA scientists estimate that it would take a spaceship only 90 days to get to Mars when the planet was at “opposition” – i.e. as close as 55,000,000 km from Earth. Adjusted for a distance of 1.2 AUs, that means that a ship equipped with a NTP/NEC propulsion system could make the trip in about 293 days (about nine months and three weeks). A little slow, but not bad considering the technology exists.
Another proposed method of interstellar travel comes in the form of the Radio Frequency (RF) Resonant Cavity Thruster, also known as the EM Drive. Originally proposed in 2001 by Roger K. Shawyer, a UK scientist who started Satellite Propulsion Research Ltd (SPR) to bring it to fruition, this drive is built around the idea that electromagnetic microwave cavities can allow for the direct conversion of electrical energy to thrust.
According to calculations based on the NASA prototype (which yielded a power estimate of 0.4 N/kilowatt), a spacecraft equipped with the EM drive could make the trip to Mars in just ten days. Adjusted for a trip to the Asteroid Belt, so a spacecraft equipped with an EM drive would take an estimated 32.5 days to reach the Asteroid Belt.
Impressive, yes? But of course, that is based on a concept that has yet to be proven. So let’s turn to yet another radical proposal, which is to use ships equipped with an antimatter engine. Created in particle accelerators, antimatter is the most dense fuel you could possibly use. When atoms of matter meet atoms of antimatter, they annihilate each other, releasing an incredible amount of energy in the process.
According to the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC), which is researching the technology, it would take just 10 milligrams of antimatter to propel a human mission to Mars in 45 days. Based on this estimate, a craft equipped with an antimatter engine and roughly twice as much fuel could make the trip to the Asteroid Belt in roughly 147 days. But of course, the sheer cost of creating antimatter – combined with the fact that an engine based on these principles is still theoretical at this point – makes it a distant prospect.
Basically, getting to the Asteroid Belt takes quite a bit of time, at least when it comes to the concepts we currently have available. Using theoretical propulsion concepts, we are able to cut down on the travel time, but it will take some time (and lots of money) before those concepts are a reality. However, compared to many other proposed missions – such as to Europa and Enceladus – the travel time is shorter, and the dividends quite clear.
As already stated, there are enough resources – in the form of minerals and volatiles – in the Asteroid Belt to last us indefinitely. And, should we someday find a way to cost-effective way to send spacecraft there rapidly, we could tap that wealth and begin to usher in an age of post-scarcity! But as with so many other proposals and mission concepts, it looks like we’ll have to wait for the time being.
We have written many articles about the asteroid belt for Universe Today. Here’s Where Do Asteroids Come From?, Why the Asteroid Belt Doesn’t Threaten Spacecraft, and Why isn’t the Asteroid Belt a Planet?.
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