Backyard astronomers will be in for a treat this summer, as Mars will make its closest approach to Earth in decades, The Weather Channel is reporting.
In space, everything is moving, constantly, and the Earth and Mars are no exception. As the two planets complete their respective annual journeys around the Sun, they do a sort of dance in which they come close to each other, move apart from each other, and repeat the process over the decades. However, there are several factors at work here. For one thing, an Earth year takes 365.25 days, give or take, while a Martian year takes 687 days. What’s more, the two planets’ orbits aren’t perfect circles, but rather they’re eliptical, and indeed, differently-shaped elipses.
What that all means is that, over the course of this “dance,” Mars will sometimes be as close to the Earth as it could possibly get as they’re roughly lined up with each other in terms of distance from each other; and sometimes the two planets will be directly opposite each other, with the Sun in between. At those times, according to Space, they’re about 250 million miles apart, and Mars appears as but a faint red dot in the sky. The average distance between the two planets is about 139 million miles.
But in the coming weeks, Mars will be a mere 35.8 miles from Earth, meaning it will be brighter than Jupiter, and it will rival Venus in brightness (Venus is almost always the second-brightest object in the night sky, after the Moon).
Mars is now and will continue to be for the rest of the summer, visible to the naked eye. But to get the real experience, you need to grab either a telescope or even some binoculars, and head out to a rural area, away from light pollution from cities. With a decent-enough telescope, and with a clear sky, you may even be able to faintly make out some surface detail on the planet.
The closest approach will come on the night of July 30. On that night, Mars will rise at 8:25 p.m Eastern Time and set at 5:18 a.m. the morning of July 31, when it will be both closest and brightest. It won’t be that close again until 2035. Don’t despair if you miss it, however, as Mars will continue to be close and bright through August.
In other exciting space news for this summer, the annual Perseid meteor shower will take place on August 13, according to Sky and Telescope.