Get ready to explore Mars right from your backyard. The red planet is about to swing the closest it has come to Earth since November 2005. And around the same time, sky-watchers will also be able to see our neighboring world at its brightest for the year.
At exactly 6 a.m. ET (10:00 a.m. UT) on May 22, Mars will reach what astronomers call opposition. This is when the sun, Earth, and Mars are aligned in a straight path so that Mars appears to rise in the east just as the sun sets in the west, making the sunlit side of the planet visible all night long.
Mars also makes its closest approach to Earth on May 30, coming just 46.7 million miles (75.3 million kilometers) away. These two events so close together mean that the red planet will appear unusually large and bright through telescopes for the next few weeks.
While you shouldn’t expect Mars to be as big as the full moon, as many online hoaxes in past years have suggested, this opposition will be your best bet to see the red planet until 2018.
That’s because Mars reaches opposition only once every 26 months, when Earth manages to overtake the planet in its tighter track around the sun. But unlike Earth’s more circular orbit, Mars’s path is fairly elliptical. That means the distance between the two worlds varies, making some oppositions better than others.
The previous best encounter occurred back in August 2003, when Mars was a record-breaking 35 million miles (56 million kilometers) distant. Such ideal conditions won’t happen again until 2287.
While we won’t be as close for this opposition, Mars will still outshine most of the brightest springtime stars and ride high in our sky, making it a truly fantastic sight.
In addition to offering beautiful views, opposition has traditionally set the stage for robotic invasions of Mars. Because of Mars’s proximity and alignment with our planet, the time around opposition is the best for sending spacecraft, saving travel time and fuel costs.
Mars and Company
Many keen-eyed onlookers may have already noticed the fiery planet growing brighter in our night skies the past few months, making it easy to spot with nothing more than the naked eye as one of the brightest starlike objects in the heavens.
To track down the warrior planet for yourself, go outside after dusk on any clear night and look for a glowing gold-orange beacon rising above the eastern horizon. Mars will glide high over the southern sky throughout the night, setting in the west by dawn.
This opposition favors observers in the Southern Hemisphere, because the planet will travel through the southern constellations of Ophiuchus, Scorpius, and Libra. But observers in more northerly locations across the globe will still get impressive views.
The full moon will make a spectacular pairing with Mars on the night of May 21, making the red planet even easier to hunt down. The two brilliant objects will dominate the overnight hours, traveling together while appearing to be separated by only five degrees, equal to the width of three middle fingers held at arm’s length.
Adding to the cosmic spectacle, Mars will be joined by the yellow-colored ringed planet Saturn and the red giant star Antares over the next few weeks, with the trio forming a triangular pattern rising in the eastern sky in the early evening.
Red Planet Up Close
Most of the time Mars is not much to look at through a telescope, because it's just a tiny, fuzzy, orange-hued dot; however, all that changes during opposition, when the planet becomes a disk filled with tantalizing features.
Even a small telescope with about a six-inch mirror will be able to tease out surface details like the southern white ice cap and distinct, dark regions that are windswept rocky fields.
As we step outside this weekend and look up, it's amazing to think that the ruddy color of Mars we can see with just our unaided eyes is caused by sunlight reflecting off the iron-rich dust covering this barren but intriguing world.
Enjoy the show!
Have questions about viewing Mars? Andrew Fazekas will be on Facebook for a live discussion at 10 a.m. ET on May 21.