Have you noticed the dazzling red star high in the East during late evening? That’s the planet Mars and it’s now nearing opposition on October 13th, offering some of the best naked eye and telescopic views possible.
Opposition is when Mars and Earth reach their closest approach to each other with respect to their independent orbits around the Sun. For Mars and Earth, this happens every 2 years and 2 months.
With the planet’s relatively high altitude and closeness around opposition, current views of the planet even with moderately powerful telescopes should be striking, perhaps revealing dim surface features and polar caps.
These images from Instagram’s @nightskyflying show the dramatic size and clarity change of Mars over a period of many months. If you don’t have a telescope it’s still worth looking up to appreciate the brightness of Mars as a naked eye planet at the moment.
Today Mars is closer to Earth than it will be for the next 269 years!
The reason for this varying distance is the red planet’s elliptical orbit which alters the distance between the planets each time Earth overtakes Mars. The attached animation below should give you a feel for how this works.
This close proximity means Mars is particularly bright at the moment shining at magnitude -2.8, and will remain so for the next month and a half. In fact Mars is twice as bright as Jupiter at the moment and will be brighter than the gas giant until September 7th.
Weather permitting you can see Mars sitting low in the South after dark, burning like a brilliant red coal. Viewing surface details requires a telescope at a reasonable magnification, currently hampered by the planet wide dust storms raging on the surface of Mars.