The table below gives you some sense for how long it takes to get to each planet at different speeds.
The Space Shuttle, of course, can't leave Earth orbit but its speed is typical of manned spacecraft. The Galileo spacecraft which recently explored Jupiter traveled twice as fast. Ion rocket motors get their speed by being constantly accelerated 24-hours a day for many months, and two versions of this technology are given for a low-power and high-power ion engine. Finally, solar sails can reach speeds of nearly that of the solar wind, and engineers are hopeful that this technology will be tested in space very soon. As you can see, we are currently stuck in the mode of travel where it takes nearly 10 years to get to Pluto. Perhaps in another hundred years, this travel time will be reduced to a year or less...assuming Humanity feels a compelling economic need to continue this kind of exploration.
|Method=||Shuttle||Galileo||Ion A||Ion B||Solar Sail|
Note: Ion Drive using a constant thrust of A) 0.1 pounds B) 1 pound with turnaround deceleration added. Two years acceleration to reach top speed. Solar Sail - Interstellar Probe estimated speed. (Solar wind = 450 km/sec or one million mph)
This answer was updated in 2011.
See my books:
The Astronomy Cafe (1998) and
Back to the Astronomy Cafe (2003) for more FAQs in printed form. Author: Dr. Sten Odenwald, Copyright 2011
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