Ask Jimmy and the Bug

Ask Jimmy & the Bug
There is a picture of Bug wearing a spacesuit and waving.

Hey, Jimmy!
Brendan R. from Illinois wants to know: “How long does it take to get to Mars?”

It depends on when you go. Earth and Mars zip around the Sun like cars on a funky racetrack. They travel at different speeds and in different-shaped “lanes,” or orbits—with slower Mars on the outside and faster Earth on the inside. The distance between them keeps changing. They can be as close as 34.65 million miles or as far apart as 243 million miles.

there is a picture of Earth and Mars, with a line segment between them saying, ‘A Long Way’
there is Jimmy playing with a toy racetrack

Spaceships bound for Mars are launched when the two planets are relatively close together. Otherwise, the trip would take way too long. According to space expert Dr. David Stern, “Only once every 26 months are they in the right position for an Earth-Mars mission, with Mars a little ahead on the ‘racetrack.’”

there is a picture of the solar system with paths showing Earth's orbit, and Mars' orbit.

To make sure the spaceship will meet up with Mars, scientists “aim” it not where Mars is but where it will be when the spaceship reaches the Mars orbit. (This is like the quarterback who throws the football down the field in front of his receiver so the ball will be there when the receiver arrives.)

there is a drawing of two rover on a red planet.

In July 2003, the timing was right, and NASA launched Spirit and Opportunity into space. After a journey of nearly seven months, these two small robot rovers landed on Mars in January 2004.


  1. In Lesson 3 you read about Mars. What similarities are there between Earth and Mars?
    [anno: Mars has some oxygen in its atmosphere. The planet also has frozen water at its poles. The surface of the planet has canyons and valleys.]
  2. Why do you think that NASA is interested in learning more about Mars? Write a short paragraph about why you think NASA wants to study Mars.
    [anno: Answers will vary but could include that NASA might want to find out about the possibility of life ever existing on Mars. NASA might also want to know if people could ever live on Mars.]