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Moon and Mars

February 28, 2016

Leap Day gets off to a beautiful start tomorrow, with a close encounter between the Moon and Mars. The planet looks like a bright orange star. It’s below the Moon as they climb into good view around 1 or 2 a.m., and closer to the lower left of the Moon at first light.

Mars is growing brighter in a hurry right now. That’s because Earth is closing fast on its neighbor world, thanks to our smaller, faster orbit around the Sun.

The two planets are like a pair of thoroughbreds locked in a perpetual race. Earth is the third planet out from the Sun, while Mars is the fourth. Since Earth has the inside lane, it travels a shorter distance around the Sun. And thanks to the laws of planetary motion, closer planets move faster than those that are farther out. So every couple of years, we overtake Mars.

As we do so, the distance to the Red Planet decreases. We’ll be closest in about three months, at just 47 million miles. And as the range decreases, Mars grows brighter. A month from now, it’ll be twice as bright as it is now. And when Earth and Mars are at their closest, the planet will shine almost 10 times brighter than now — twice as bright as the brightest true star in the night sky.

So keep an eye on Mars as we gallop closer to the planet over the next few months. Not only will it grow brighter, but it’ll rise a little earlier each night — putting in a better and better showing deep into spring.

We’ll talk more about Leap Day tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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