How Long Would It Take To Get To The Moon?

“Dad?” my son asked while we were playing with his Legos. “How long would it take to get to the moon?”

“I think that depends on how fast you’re going,” I replied.

“No,” he says, sounding exasperated as only a 6-year-old can, “I mean, if you were going as fast as the Death Star!” Because that was entirely clear from the context, right?

“I don’t know,” I tell him. “I don’t know how fast the Death Star is.”

“It’s really fast,” he assures me.

Where to start?

There are a couple of things we need to know here, in order to answer the question. How far away is the moon? How fast do we have to go at minimum to make it? Oh, and how fast is the Death Star? So, let’s dig in.

How far is it to the moon?

The distance from the Earth to the Moon varies based on the time of the month, because the Moon orbits us in an ellipse – so it gets closer and then moves further away. At apogee (the farthest it gets from us), it’s 405,400 km away, while it gets as close as 362,600 km at perigee. So, clearly, how long it takes will really depend on how fast we’re going – just like any other trip we can take.

How fast do we need to go?

How fast you need to go to get to the moon will depend on the method you’re using to get there, and the amount of time you want to take. So, let’s start with the concept of escape velocity. This is the minimum speed required to “out-pull” gravity and leave an object behind. If you launch at that speed or greater, you fly away. If you don’t, you fall back to the surface. Eventually. Escape velocity varies with the gravity of the object and is approximately 11.2 km/s, or 40,320 kph on Earth. Assuming there is no friction, which is a popular physics assumption to keep equations simple. If you launch at that speed, you fly away from the earth – you slow down over time, as Earth’s gravity pulls on you, but you never actually stop moving. Ever.

There’s a down side to trying to get to the moon by launching at escape velocity (say, by using a variant of Project HARP’s big gun): Earth’s force of gravity is 9.807 m/s2, so you’re pulling around 1,142 gravities at the instant of launch. You would be a thin, wide smear on your pilot’s chair well before you reached the moon.

Clearly, we didn’t send a gelatinized melange of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin Aldrin to the moon on Apollo 11 – those three men made it to the moon and back with bones and organs intact, after all. So, how did they do it? Well, the important thing to remember is that escape velocity is only needed if you have an initial push and then add no additional thrust after that. This isn’t how the Saturn V – or any other rocket for that matter – works. They lift themselves at a slower pace, but apply a constant (or near-constant) thrust by carrying fuel. There’s a point of diminishing returns on this, because you have to lift your fuel as well as the ship (something described in the Tsiolkosky rocket equation, which I discussed when I tried to describe how to make a house fly).

The Saturn V was a multi-stage rocket, with the first stage burning for 2 minutes 41 seconds and pushing the rocket about 68 km into the air (hitting a velocity of 2,756 meters per second). Then it ditched the first stage and started the second stage burn. This pushed it another 107 km (for a total of 175 km) into the air over the course of 6 minutes, reaching a velocity of 6,995 meters per second). Stage 3 burned for about 2 minutes 30 seconds, reaching a velocity of 7,793 meters per second and putting it in orbit at an altitude of 191.1 km. Stage 4 burned for six minutes, pushing the ship to a velocity of 10,800 meters per second once it was time to head for the moon.

So, how long would it take?

How fast are you going?

Let’s say you just boosted off Earth with a canon, firing you straight up at escape velocity. Let’s also say you timed things so that you’d intersect with the moon at perigee. That’s 362,600 km, or 362,600,000 meters. At 11.2 meters per second, that’s 32,375,000 seconds to reach the moon. This translates into 8,993 days, or 24 years, 7 and one half months. Approximately. Your gelatanized corpse has a long trip ahead.

Apollo 11 was moving at 10.8 kilometers per second, which (mathematically) means you’d expect the trip to the moon to take 33,574.07 seconds. In theory, this means 9.326 hours. It actually took three days. Why? Well, there’s two reasons and they’re both gravity. See, the Apollo 11 wasn’t maintaining constant thrust. It had fuel that it used for course corrections and orbital insertions and the like, but it coasted most of the way. Earth’s gravity pulled on the ship the whole time, slowing it down. In addition, the ship didn’t fly in a straight line. It was in a long, figure-eight-shaped orbit with the Earth and the Moon – like so:

But what about the Death Star?

Ah, yes. That. Well, it still depends on the speed the ship can manage.

How fast is the Death star?

This is… questionable. According to the DS-1 Orbital Battle Station entry on Wookieepedia, the Death star had a speed of 10 megalight (MGLT).

So, what’s a megalight? Well, also according to Wookeepedia, a megalight “was a standard unit of distance in space”. Which is entirely unhelpful, although it does indicate that when it was used in the Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance instruction manual, it appeared to be a unit of distance and that when used as speed it should imply “megalights per hour”.

In all likelihood, “megalight” is a word that got made up because it sounded cool and had no actual meaning attached to it. But if we try to break it down, “mega” as a metric prefix means million. So, one megalight could be a million light seconds. However, this would mean that the Death star flies at 10 million light seconds per hour, or 2,777.7 times the speed of light – meaning that it could reach Alpha Centauri from earth in less than 14 hours of cruising on its “sublight” drives.  So I’m going to assume that this is not what was intended.

The Star Wars Technical Commentaries on speculate in “Standard Units” on what MGLT means in terms of real world [i]anything[/i]. The author of the article comes to the conclusion that 1 MGLT is “at least 400 m/s2” acceleration, which is roughly 40 gravities of acceleration.

One thing we also know about ships in Star Wars is that constant acceleration isn’t an issue – they have something close to the “massless, infinite fuel” I mentioned above. The Death Star isn’t fast, compared to the other ships in Star Wars, but it can accellerate at a constant 4 kilometers per second. Now Dummies.dom provides us with a simple formula for determining the distance (s) covered for a given time (t) at a particular acceleration (a), and that formula is s = 0.5at2. Which means we can reverse engineer, because all we need is the time. The equation looks like this:

362,600 = 0.5(4)t2
362,600 = 2t2
181,300 = t2
t = square root of 181,300 = 425.7933771208754 seconds

So, assuming that the Death Star didn’t engage it’s hyperdrive, it would take a little over 7 minutes to reach the Moon at a velocity of approximately 1,703.17 kilometers per second. And it would keep going, because it can only slow down at 4 kilometers per second. So, if the Death Star wanted to stop at the Moon, it would need to slow down about halfway there (yes, I know that orbital mechanics are a little more complex than this, but we’re talking about a 160 kilometer diameter ship that can accelerate at 4 kilometers per second. So cut me some slack, would you?). That it would have to accelerate to halfway to the moon, and then decelerate the rest of the way. So, that would look something like this:

2(181,300 = 0.5(4)t2)
2(181,300 = 2t2)
2(90,650 = t2)
2(t = square root of 90,650 = 301.0813843464919)
t = 602.1627686929838 seconds, or slightly over 10 minutes.

“All your tides are belong to us, now.”