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Science & Environment

How Long Would It Take To Drive To Pluto?


So how will New Horizons impact your life? Well, the next time the kids ask, are we there yet, you can tell them about the distance New Horizons traveled to get to the far reaches of outer space. Astrophysicist Adam Frank helps us wrap our brains around it.

ADAM FRANK, BYLINE: This is a good moment to reflect on just how freaking far away those far reaches really are. But, you know, there's really a problem when it comes to understanding astronomical distances. I mean, once you get past a couple hundred thousand of anything, who can really tell the difference? How much bigger is 3.5 billion miles from, say, 75 million miles?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Five times 24...

FRANK: It's not like we have a day-to-day experience measuring with these kinds of things. So what do we have visceral experience with when it comes to distance? Driving. We all do a lot of driving. And as everyone knows, being stuck in a car for 10 minutes - no big deal. But a 10-hour drive - that'll suck the life out of you. So how long would it take for us to drive to Pluto? Well, folks, line up your soda cans, potato chip bags and Slim Jims. We are in for one long road trip. Now, let's do the simplest calculation possible. Assuming a straight line trip from Earth to the dwarf planet, ignoring each planet's relative motion and most importantly the need to stop and pee. We'll also obey the rules of our roads and keep a steady 65 miles per hour the whole way. So when we put it all together, we get a solar system-spanning road trip that lasts how long? Oh, just about 6,206 years. And what can you expect on a 6,206 year-long road trip? Well, first off, you know how your kids made you listen to the soundtrack from Disney's "Frozen" a million times last year on your road trip?


IDINA MENZEL: (As Elsa, singing) The snow glows white on the mountain tonight, not a footprint to be seen...

FRANK: On your way to Pluto, a million repeats of "Frozen..."


MENZEL: (As Elsa, singing) Let it go, let it go...

FRANK: ...Only gets you to about Mars, which, speaking road-tripistically (ph), is kind of like the city next door from where you live. Of course, if you really need to keep the kids occupied, there's always the entire 116-hour "Harry Potter" books on tape series.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Harry Potter was a wizard - a wizard fresh from his first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

FRANK: But unfortunately, you'll need to listen to Harry defeat Voldemort - oh, I said his name - about 400,000 times to keep the kids from killing each other on your way to Pluto.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Harry Potter - Harry Potter - Harry Potter - was a wizard - was a wizard - was a wizard - Harry Potter was a wizard - Harry Potter was a wizard - Harry Potter was a wizard - Harry Potter was a wizard - Harry Potter was a wizard.

FRANK: So really, what's the big deal about something launched from Earth getting to Pluto? The voyage that would've taken us six millennia in an SUV has taken New Horizons a little under a decade. And after Pluto, New Horizons will sail on through the unexplored Kuiper Belt, an extended ring of planetary construction debris and out eventually towards the endless majesty of the stars. But that is another long, long, long, very long story.

CORNISH: Adam Frank writes for NPR's Cosmos blog. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.