Earth will zip past the planet Mars tomorrow, leaving it behind as we follow our smaller, faster orbit around the Sun. As a result of that encounter, Mars is putting in its best showing of the year. It looks like a brilliant orange star, and for most of the night it’s the third-brightest object in the sky — only the Moon and Jupiter outshine it.
This passage is known as opposition — Mars lines up opposite the Sun in our sky. It rises around sunset and remains in the sky all night. And it’ll be closest to us in a few days, at a distance of about 57 million miles. That makes the planet shine brighter than at any other time during its sojourn across the sky.
This opposition is relatively puny, though. That’s because Mars’s orbit around the Sun is more lopsided than Earth’s is. This time around, we’re catching Mars when it’s relatively far from the Sun. At some other oppositions, Mars is much closer to the Sun, so it’s also closer to us, making it shine brighter.
Even so, the Red Planet is putting in quite a showing. It’s low in the east-southeast as the sky gets good and dark, with the bright star Spica below it. Mars wheels low across the south during the night, and is in the west at first light. It’ll begin to fade in a few weeks, though, and by mid-May it will shine just half as bright as it does now. So take a look at the planet as it shines at its orangey best over the next couple of weeks.
More about Mars tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.