Mars Stands Still

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Mars Stands Still

Mars is coming to a halt for a bit. The planet is still orbiting the Sun, but its position against the background of stars will remain the same. That’s because our viewing angle is changing.

In astronomical parlance, Mars will be stationary. That’ll happen tomorrow. The planet will resume its normal motion across the sky right after that. But it’ll be slow at first, so it’ll take a day or two to notice any difference — and even then, you’ll have to be looking closely to see it.

As with all the other planets, Mars’s position in the night sky depends on both its motion and ours. Most of the time, Mars moves eastward against the starry background. Every couple of years, though, Earth begins to catch up to it in our smaller, faster orbit around the Sun. As we pass by Mars, it stops and reverses direction for a while. Then it stops again — which happens tomorrow — before resuming its normal course.

A planet puts on its best showing during the “reverse” part of its trek because that’s when it’s closest to Earth. Mars was at that point last month. And it’s still quite close now, so it’s quite a sight. It’s in the east-southeast as night falls, and looks like a brilliant orange star.

Incidentally, astrology assigns special meanings to a planet’s reverse track. Scientifically, though, there’s nothing to it. The brief “about face” is all part of a planet’s normal progression around the Sun — and across our night sky.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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