Look up in the night sky right now and the brightest light blinking back is Mars — so dazzling it almost equals the once-in-a-lifetime view in 2003.
Earth and Mars end up on the same side of the sun every 2.2 years. But because the two planets’ orbits are ellipitical, they’re sometimes close and sometimes far apart. This month through early August, they happen to be very close.
Though close is relative in astronomy.
In 2003, Mars was the closest to Earth in 60,000 years when the two planets eyed each other from a scant 34.6 million miles away.
Mars isn’t quite that close this time around, but at just 35.8 million miles apart, it’s the best view terrestials will get of the red planet until Sept. 11, 2035.
“It’s already phenomenal right now,” said Bob Bonadurer, director of the Milwaukee Public Museum’s Daniel M. Soref National Geographic Dome Theater & Planetarium. “It’s already amazing. It just really stands out like Jupiter stands out — though it passed up Jupiter in brightness on July 7.”
Mars reaches its closest point to Earth on July 27, rising at sunset in the southeast and setting at sunrise in the southwest in the constellation of Sagittarius.
Right now, Mars is rising just before 10 p.m., but by the end of July it will be rising as the sun goes down, around 8:30 p.m.
When Mars is farther away and fainter in the sky, it appears more reddish. When it’s closer and brighter, the color appears more orange.
“Mars itself doesn’t change. It’s more due to the nature of its brightness. But it’s like going to the paint store. What type of orange? Peach, butterscotch, pumpkin, tangerine?” said Bonadurer. “It’s just cool to look at.”
Bonadurer was working at the Minneapolis Planetarium in August 2003 when the rarity of seeing Mars the closest to Earth in 60,000 years drew hordes of stargazers to parks, museums, planetariums and astronomy clubs around the world. That year it could be seen early in the morning and Bonadurer was dumbfounded to see 5,000 people come to a Mars viewing event at 5 a.m. in Minneapolis.
But maybe it’s also the appeal of Mars. Earthlings have been fascinated for centuries by the fourth rock from the sun, writing books, making movies and sending spacecraft there. In Mars’ favor is the fact that it’s not Venus, Earth’s other neighbor, a hellish place that’s the hottest world in our solar system.
Plus there’s the possibility of life on Mars.
“There’s so much evidence for water on Mars. There’s ice on Mars and there’s plenty of evidence that it had a thicker atmosphere. Where there’s water, life is a possibility,” said Bonadurer.
Unlike the moon, it’s fairly difficult to get an up-close view of Mars and its poles. Bonadurer said a 4-inch telescope won’t do it. An 8-inch or larger telescope is needed, and it must be away from light pollution. Mars is fairly low in the sky, which means its light is traveling through more of Earth’s murky atmosphere. Mars will also appear hazy because of a large dust storm now swirling around the planet. Dust storms can last weeks on Mars.
Bonadurer recommends simply looking up at the sky. Mars is the brightest dot out there and though it will begin to grow fainter by mid-August as Earth orbits faster and moves farther away, it will remain brighter than Jupiter or any night star until mid-September.
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