How Long Would It Take To Get To Pluto (And Why)?

Exact Answer: 9 to 12 years

Pluto is a dwarf planet, which is a long distance away from Earth. It is more than 5 billion kilometers away from Earth at the moment. It has a stunning diversity of landscapes, from nitrogen glaciers to ascending mountains of rock-hard water ice. In 2006, International Astronomical Union has downgraded Pluto to dwarf planet status, which remains a controversial issue.

NASA’s mission called the New Horizons has made the journey to Pluto from 2006 to 2015 and it took them about 9.5 years to reach there. The NASA team has witnessed dramatic landscapes in Pluto, which is a world only 2,377 km wide. The varied landscapes include a heart-shaped structure on Pluto’s reddish surface which is now known as Tombaugh Regio, and it is bordered in places by 3 km mountains made of water ice. 

How Long Would It Take To Get To Pluto?

Pluto is around 5 billion kilometers away from Earth and it takes about 9 to 12 years to reach Pluto depending on the weight and speed of the spacecraft. The New Horizons mission spacecraft was a $720 million project that has traveled at a speed of 58,580 km/h to Pluto. It is the fastest spacecraft to leave Earth in 2006, and cross Jupiter’s orbit the following year. It has traveled nearly a million miles a day to reach Pluto and its moons in 9.5 years.

Pluto has an elliptical orbit around the Sun. Perihelion is the closest point to Pluto and it is only 4.4 billion kilometers. In astronomical units, this distance is 30 AU or 30 times the distance between Earth and the Sun. Pluto has reached this point on September 5th, 1989, as per the last record. Aphelion is Pluto’s most distant point and it is 7.3 billion kilometers or 49 AU. Pluto will reach that point on August 23, 2113.

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In summary:

DistanceTime
5 billion kilometers 9 – 12 years
7 billion kilometers 12 years or more

Why Does It Take So Long To Get To Pluto?

Pluto is very far away from Earth and the solar system. It takes about 9.2 hours for any kind of transmission to reach Pluto, and then travel back to Earth. New Horizons mission has been the fastest spacecraft to ever leave Earth and reach Pluto. This spacecraft has been specifically built to travel millions of miles in space.

New Horizons traveled off from Earth at a very high speed. It moved away from the Sun at a speed of 160,000 km/h. The Sun’s gravity, however, slowed down the spacecraft. As it reached Jupiter, it had a speed of 68,000 km/h. It managed to increase its speed back up to 83,000 km/h by extorting some velocity from Jupiter. The spacecraft traveled at 50,000 km/h as it finally reached Pluto and its moons.

It is possible to travel faster to Pluto, but only with a more powerful rocket, and a lighter spacecraft load. New technology and innovation could save a lot of time, however, science has become very expensive and time-consuming. Rockets can be very costly and may demand huge investments to bring new innovative designs to life.

Another problem faced by astronauts is the comparatively less time that they get to do any kind of science on the dwarf planet as they reach the planet at a faster pace. The scientists in New Horizons took an uncomprehended look at Pluto and its moon, Charon, in a certain very little amount of time. They were curious about Pluto’s terrains and composition, geological activity, and evolutionary history, so they tried to capture evidence on camera.

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It is almost impossible to orbit or slow down Pluto to get there in a reasonable amount of time. The dwarf planet’s gravity is weak to pull a spacecraft into its orbit, because of which spacecraft need to travel slowly. Reasons like this create the demand for new technology to tackle speed and weight issues.

Conclusion

It takes 9 to 12 years to travel to Pluto when it is 5 billion kilometers away from Earth. However, it is estimated that Pluto may reach its furthest point in the next century, which may increase the travel time. If scientists come up with new spacecraft designs as Pluto reaches 7 billion kilometers away from Earth, travel time may considerably decrease, otherwise, it will need 12 or more years to reach Pluto from Earth in the future.

References

  1. https://arc.aiaa.org/doi/pdf/10.2514/6.1993-1951
  2. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24996824

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