Mars Making Closest Approach to Earth in 15 Years

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Mars has been growing bigger and brighter in the night sky in 2018 and it will reach its peak on Thursday night, bringing the best opportunity to view the Red Planet since 2003. Now’s the time to catch Mars in the night sky. The red planet is making its closest approach to Earth in 15 years.

The two planets will be just 57.6 million kilometres apart next Tuesday. Mars at opposition will take place on Thursday night into early Friday morning, the first time that Mars has been at opposition since May 2016. That means Mars and the sun will be on exact opposite sides of Earth. That same day, parts of the world will see a total lunar eclipse. Mars is already brighter than usual and will shine even more and appear bigger as Tuesday nears. Astronomers expect good viewing through early August.

A massive dust storm presently engulfing Mars, however, is obscuring surface details normally visible through telescopes. The Martian atmosphere is so full of dust that NASA’s Opportunity rover can’t recharge enough sunlight can reach its solar panels and so it’s been silent since June 10. Flight controllers don’t expect to hear from 14-year-old Opportunity until the storm subsides, and maybe not even then.

Astronomer Harry Augensen of Widener University said, “The good news about all the Martian dust is that it reflects sunlight, which makes for an even brighter red planet, It’s magnificent. It’s as bright as an airplane landing light,” and further added, “Not quite as bright as Venus, but still because of the reddish, orange-ish-red color, you really can’t miss it in the sky.”

In 2003, Mars and Earth were the closest in nearly 60,000 years34.6 million miles  (55.7 million kilometres). NASA said that won’t happen again until 2287. The next close approach, meanwhile, in 2020, will be 62 million kilometres, according to NASA. Observatories across the US are hosting Mars-viewing events next week. Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory will provide a live online view of Mars early Tuesday.

The total lunar eclipse on Friday will be visible in Australia, Africa, Asia, Europe and South America. A total lunar eclipse occurs when the sun, Earth and moon line up perfectly, casting Earth’s shadow on the moon. Friday’s will be long, lasting 1 hour and 43 minutes.