If you've ever wanted to get a great view of the Red Planet then now is your chance, as Mars is about to come closer to Earth than at any point in the last 15 years, meaning it’ll appear especially bright in the night sky.
On July 31, the Red Planet will be just 57.6 million kilometers (35.8 million miles) from our planet, four days after it passes opposition – when it’s opposite the Sun from Earth in the sky. At its greatest distance, when the two planets are on opposite sides of the Sun, it is about 401 million kilometers (250 million miles) away.
As two planets dance around the Sun, they experience a close encounter every 26 months. This particular encounter is known as a perihelic opposition, as Mars will also be at its closest point to the Sun.
This will make Mars especially bright in the sky, as the Sun’s light reflects off its surface and atmosphere. It will rise as the Sun is setting, with the best views expected around midnight on July 31. But it will appear bright in the sky for a long time, outshining Jupiter as the fourth brightest object (after the Sun, Moon, and Venus) from July 7 to September 7. To locate it, use an app such as Sky Map.
But this isn’t the closest pass of Mars ever. Back in 2003, the Red Planet approached to a mere 55.7 million kilometers (34.6 million miles) from our planet. This was the closest approach it had made to Earth in 60,000 years, and that record won’t be broken until August 28, 2287.
These close passes are actually pretty useful, as they enable us to send spacecraft on relatively shorter trips to Mars. NASA currently has a spacecraft on its way there, called InSight, which is scheduled to arrive in November. And in 2020, when the window opens again for the next close pass, we’ll see two more missions launch – NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, and ESA’s ExoMars rover.
You will almost certainly see a hoax story doing the rounds again this year, with people claiming that Mars will appear as big as the Moon in the sky. This is absolutely not true, so don’t be fooled if people start posting this on social media.
But it will still look extremely impressive, appearing bright and red in the sky. So if you get a chance, head outside at night and try and get a glimpse of the Red Planet as it waves hello.