How Far is Mars?

Science Snacks

From Marianne Dyson

September 1, 2015

Hello, and welcome to Science Snacks! This occasional newsletter is where I discuss one cool science fact or news item (the “snack”) in each issue that I think other writers and readers of science fact & fiction will enjoy. I will also announce new publications & appearances where I hope to meet subscribers! I hope you agree that learning new things is a treat!

Welcome to Mars: Making a Home on the Red Planet
Welcome to Mars: Making a Home on the Red Planet

“Going to Mars is sort of like choosing to attend college in another country or joining the military.”

Welcome to Mars: Making a Home on the Red Planet, page 10 

How Far is Mars?

When talking with the public, and especially kids, providing facts is not enough. For example, telling kids that Mars is never closer than 50 million miles from Earth doesn’t really explain the distance to them. How far is that? In the book, Welcome to Mars which I coauthored with Buzz Aldrin, I tell them it’s equal to about 10,000 trips around the Earth. This is helpful for adults and older kids. But for those who have never traveled beyond their home towns, the scale of the Earth is about as meaningful as 50 million miles.

How else can we express distance? Since it takes time to cover distance, kids intuitively understand that it takes longer to walk across a football field than a tennis court. They also understand that if they ride a bike, they can cover that distance faster than by walking. So I add that even at rocket speeds, it takes about six months to get to Mars.

While facts and analogies are helpful, many kids (and adults!) benefit from the reinforcement of hands-on activities to actually absorb a new science concept like how orbits work. So an activity on pages 18-19 has them build a “race track” that shows the relationship of the orbits of Earth and Mars around the sun and how their distances vary in a periodic cycle.

Buzz wants people not to just go to Mars, but to stay there and turn it into a new home for humanity. Getting kids to think of Mars as another country that takes a long time to get to because of the way it moves around the sun, will help them understand what kind of commitment in time and resources it will take to settle Mars.

Speaking of Science

  • September 3, 7:30 pm, Lunar & Planetary Institute (3600 Bay Area, Houston), Dr. Paul Schenk, Dawn and New Horizons Missions, NASA’s Exploration of Ceres and Pluto: An Update
  • September 26, 12:30-1:30, Houston Writers Guild Indiepalooza, Author signing session including me
  • October 2, time TBD, JSC cafeteria, Buzz Aldrin & me, signing Welcome to Mars

If there is a particular science topic you’d like me to address in a future Science Snacks, please send me an email! Note, you can order copies of my books via my website.