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Mars marches into March with a marvelous display. The planet is at opposition on Saturday, when it lines up opposite the Sun in our sky. For several nights around opposition, the planet rises at sunset, climbs high across the sky during the night, and sets at sunrise. It passes closest to Earth around opposition as well, so it’s brightest for the year. It looks like a brilliant orange star, not far from Regulus, the brightest star of Leo, the lion.
This is not a great opposition for Mars. Earth passes more than 60 million miles from the planet, versus just 35 million miles a few years ago.
The distance varies because Mars follows a much more elongated orbit than Earth does, so its distance from the Sun varies by tens of millions of miles. When we pass Mars at this time of year, it’s close to its farthest point from the Sun. In the years when we pass it during summer, though, and especially in August, Mars is closer in, so it shines much brighter.
Even so, it’s still easy to see the planet’s orange color, which was the inspiration for its name. The reddish-orange tint reminded long-ago skywatchers of blood, so they named the planet for the god of war. In ancient Greece, he was known as Ares; in Rome, as Mars. The month of March also was named for the war god.
Look for Mars throughout the month that shares its namesake. It’s low in the east as darkness falls, and scoots high across the south around midnight.
More about Mars tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012