How Long Does It Take to Get to the Moon?

Harrison Hagan Schmit, rock samples, moon
American geologist and astronaut Harrison Hagan Schmitt takes rock samples from the surface of the moon during America's last moon landing mission of the 20th century, Apollo 17, December 1972. Space Frontiers/Getty Images

Boldly glowing in the night sky, the moon has long been an object of fascination. It's not just a pretty face in our solar system; it's a natural satellite that affects the tides, animal sleep cycles (including humans!) and hormones.

But how long does it take to get to the moon? Humans have long been inspired to look up and reach beyond the atmosphere of our own planet — that's part of why President John F. Kennedy set his sights on NASA's mission objective to travel to the moon in the 1960s — so it's only natural to wonder how long the journey takes.

So far, American astronauts have made nine journeys to the moon — six of which landed on the lunar surface. NASA, other governments, and other private companies are now planning crewed missions back to the moon, which will give us even more data about how long it takes to make the trip.

The Moon's Distance: Not Just a Straight Line

The moon doesn't just lazily hover around Earth in a perfectly circular path. The moon's orbit is, in fact, elliptical.

This causes the moon to be sometimes closer to Earth (a point known as perigee) and sometimes further (known as apogee). This is why you might have heard the term "supermoon" thrown around.

Taking advantage of lunar orbit mechanics, astrophysicists can plan lunar missions to coincide with those times when the moon's elliptical orbit is at its closest point to Earth.

Travel Time to the Moon

Based on past missions, we know that it usually takes about three days for a manned spacecraft to reach the moon when the average distance from Earth to the moon is 240,000 miles (386,243 kilometers). This translates to a spacecraft's speed of about 3,333 mph (5,364 kph).

Yet, the duration isn't always set in stone. Some uncrewed missions, in a bid to be more fuel efficient, might move a lot slower. For instance, China's Chang'e missions took around four to five days.

But, want to hear something astonishing? The 1959 Luna 1, launched by a powerful rocket, made its journey to the moon in just 36 hours, traveling at a speed of about 6,500 mph (10,500 kph). However, it failed to land on the moon's surface.

The Luna 2, which launched only a few months later, not only succeeded in becoming the first spacecraft to land on the moon, but it also made the trip in 34 hours. And let's not forget the 2006 New Horizons, which breezed past the moon in a mere eight and a half hours en route to Pluto, reaching speeds of up to 36,373 mph (58,536 kph).

A Flashback to Apollo 11

The Apollo missions, headed by NASA from the Kennedy Space Center, were monumental in unraveling the mysteries of our lunar neighbor. The Apollo 11 mission showcases the wonders of orbital mechanics.

While it took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and their team three days, three hours and 49 minutes to reach the moon and set foot on its surface, they returned to Earth in just two days, 22 hours and 56 minutes.

Why the time difference? As Armstrong and Aldrin were hopping around on the lunar surface, Earth and the moon grew slightly closer — an effect of that elliptical orbit we mentioned earlier. moon

What Lies Ahead: New Missions and New Hopes

With advancements in propulsion system and launch vehicle technologies, both governmental bodies and private enterprises are gearing up for future crewed missions to the moon. The European Space Agency, in collaboration with NASA's Orion spacecraft, aims to achieve newer milestones.

So, the next time you look up and see that silvery orb in the sky, just remember: A new chapter in our relationship with the moon is about to unfold with another crewed mission to its surface likely on the way.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

Original article: How Long Does It Take to Get to the Moon?

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