Mars is at its best this week. The planet is at opposition — it lines up opposite the Sun, so it’s closest to Earth and it’s in view all night. It’s low in the east-northeast at nightfall and looks like a brilliant orange star. It climbs high across the sky later on.
Opposition occurs every 26 months, when Earth sweeps past Mars in our smaller, faster orbit around the Sun.
No two oppositions are quite alike, though. That’s because Mars’s orbit around the Sun is lopsided. As a result, the distance between Mars and Earth varies depending on the time of year opposition takes place. With an opposition in early December, the distance is about 50 million miles — a good bit farther than when it happens in summer. So Mars isn’t quite as bright this year as it is at some other oppositions.
Even so, you just can’t miss it. In all the night sky, only the Moon and the planets Venus and Jupiter upstage it.
Tonight, Mars lines up far to the lower left of the Moon at nightfall. It forms a tall, skinny triangle with two other orange lights. Aldebaran, the star that marks the eye of Taurus, is directly to the right of Mars in early evening. The third orange dot climbs into view a couple of hours later, well below the other two: Betelgeuse, the star that marks the shoulder of Orion the hunter.
The Moon will creep closer to Mars tomorrow night, then pass in front of it on Wednesday night.
We’ll have more about Mars tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield