If you wanted to go visit Mars, you'll really have to save up your vacation days. Currently, a single trip to the Red Planet takes somewhere in the region of 6 months. However, that might not be the case for long.
Ad Astra Rocket Company, a private corporation which conducts research and development into space rocket systems, claims to have created a theoretical propulsion system that could cut the trip to Mars down to a measly 6 weeks.
What Have They Created?
Their creation, the absolutely awesomely named Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (or VASIMR), works on a different principle than traditional spacecraft engines, as it utilizes plasma and magnets to achieve more efficient interplanetary travel. Former astronaut and CEO of Ad Astra, Dr. Franklin Chang-Díaz explained:
"It is a rocket like no other rocket that you might have seen in the past. It is a plasma rocket. The VASIMR engine is not used for launching things into space or landing them back but rather it is used for things already there. We call this ‘in-space propulsion.’"
But there's a catch. Currently, the rocket is only in the developmental and conceptual stage. Although Ad Astra has got the technology nailed down, there are issues with powering the rocket.
In order to provide enough energy, the VASIMR would require a nuclear reactor, which creates issues for the scale and size of the spacecraft. According to Robert Zubrin, the president of the Mars Society, the rocket would require “nuclear electric power systems with 10,000 times the power and 1/100th the mass per unit power as any that have ever been built.”
This has increasingly become the issue with various conceptual ship and rocket designs - for example NASA's theoretical warp drive. Although researchers and developers think they have cracked the equations and technological requirements, the next generation of propulsion simply requires too much old-fashioned energy. Until someone can condense or improve power systems, we might have to be content to only rocket around the local neighborhood.
Will We Colonize Mars?
Currently NASA are tentatively planning a manned mission in the 2030s - although this is greatly subject to change. More recently, Dutch company Mars One talked of their desire to colonize the Red Planet - although it seems their plan has predictable fell through.
Colonizing Mars is going to present some major issues, with simply getting there being one of the biggest hurdles. However, once you arrive you still need to make a habitable space, deal with radiation and a lack of atmosphere as well as perhaps prepare for a return journey.
All of this would be made much easier if the VASIMR rocket becomes a reality. By cutting travel times to mere weeks, NASA and other space agencies will have much more flexibility in colonizing the planet - as well as reducing the muscle degradation of astronauts making the journey.
However, all of this is still many, many years away. If you want to visit Mars sooner, you're best bet could be Ridley Scott's upcoming Mars colonization disaster thriller, [The Martian](movie:959366). The film, which stars Matt Damon and is based on the bestseller by Andy Weir, is currently due to arrive in theaters on November 25.