Great migrations are often a matter of timing, of waiting for a strait to freeze, a sea to part, or a planet to draw near. The distance between Earth and Mars fluctuates widely as the two worlds whirl around in their orbits. At its furthest, Mars is a thousand times further than the Moon. But every 26 months they align, when the faster moving Earth swings into position between Mars and the Sun. When this alignment occurs where their orbits are tightest, Mars can come within 36 million miles, only 150 times further than the Moon. The next such window is only four years away, too soon to send a crewed ship. But in the mid-2030s, Mars will once again burn bright and orange in our sky, and by then Musk might be ready to send his first flurry of missions, to seed a citylike colony that he expects to be up and running by 2040.
‘SpaceX is only 12 years old now,’ he told me. ‘Between now and 2040, the company’s lifespan will have tripled. If we have linear improvement in technology, as opposed to logarithmic, then we should have a significant base on Mars, perhaps with thousands or tens of thousands of people.’
You know it’s the 21st century when you have two space probes reaching Mars orbit in the same week: NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) a.k.a. “Mangalyaan.”
(I mentioned MAVEN last year.)
PC Magazine notes that India paid $74 million, while the U.S. paid $671 million. Although that’s funny to think about, it’s not entirely fair. Mangalyaan’s payload only weighs 15 kg while MAVEN’s is 65 kg. That’s a pretty good indicator of differences in mission objectives.