35 million miles to Mars

At its closest, Mars is around 35 million miles from Earth. That's like driving around the equator 1,400 times.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA, www.nasa.gov) is working on a plan to deliver four astronauts to Mars. That's a long ride, and it's a long way off.

News of the planned manned mission to Mars comes just two months after NASA officially ended operational planning activities for the rover Spirit, one of two Mars rovers that landed on the planet in 2004 for a three-month mission that still continues as Spirit’s twin, Opportunity, keeps on rolling.

The strategy to send astronauts to Mars continues with an asteroid visit.

First, in 2016, NASA plans to launch a spacecraft to an asteroid, specifically, the asteroid named 1999 RQ36, where it will use a robotic arm to gather samples. The designated Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-Rex) mission will be the first of its kind.

"This is a critical step in meeting the objectives outlined by President Obama to extend our reach beyond low-Earth orbit and explore into deep space," says NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. "It's robotic missions like these that will pave the way for future human space missions to an asteroid and other deep space destinations."

NASA selected OSIRIS-REx after reviewing three concept study reports for new scientific missions, which also included a sample return mission from the far side of the moon and a mission to the surface of Venus.

After traveling four years, OSIRIS-REx will begin six months of comprehensive surface mapping and ultimately take 2 oz of sample material from the asteroid and return to Earth in 2023, with a total mission cost of around $800 million.

"This asteroid is a time capsule from the birth of our solar system and ushers in a new era of planetary exploration," says Jim Green, director, NASA's Planetary Science Division. "The knowledge from the mission also will help us to develop methods to better track the orbits of asteroids."

For the Mars mission, engineers are building a multi-purpose crew vehicle (MPCV), which is a next-generation Orion crew capsule (that’s the capsule used in return trips from the moon).

Instead of going back to the moon, President Obama is set on Mars.

The MPCV most likely will be used in International Space Station (ISS) missions for starters. Obama had identified it as an ISS escape vehicle when he resurrected the Orion project earlier this year. But as a transfer craft, the MPCV has potential for trips well beyond Earth’s orbit.

This vehicle could be maintained in a dormant mode, while the crew is in another spacecraft with the capabilities to support a team of astronauts over a longer period of time, says NASA Associate Administrator Douglas Cooke.