A tight, bright triangle scoots across the south late tonight: the Moon, the planet Mars, and the star Spica. They climb into good view in late evening, with Mars and Spica like ears above the Moon — Mars to the left, Spica to the right.
Earth is getting ready to pass Mars in our smaller orbit around the Sun. When we do, we’ll be at our closest to Mars for the next couple of years — roughly 60 million miles from the little planet.
That still sounds like a long way — and on a human scale, it is. On the astronomical scale, though, it’s practically nothing. Of all the large, bright bodies in the solar system, only the Moon and the planets Venus and Mercury come closer.
That close approach has some advantages. Seen through a telescope, for example, Mars appears larger than average, making it easier to see details on its surface. Amateur telescopes reveal the planet’s polar ice caps and other major features, such as its volcanic plains.
The close approach is also the best time to send a spacecraft to Mars — launch a few months before Mars is closest, and arrive a few months after. There’s less distance to cover, so you need less fuel to get there — which means a smaller price tag. In fact, NASA launched its latest Mars mission last fall, for arrival later this year.
So keep an eye on Mars over the coming weeks as we pass by the planet and it shines at its best — a bright orange beacon sailing through the night.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.