Mars Is Bright Tonight As Planet Enters Opposition To Earth

May 30, 2016

Credit NASA.gov

  Mars and Earth are getting a bit chummier this month, as the Red Planet moves to its closest distance in more than a decade. 

Mars’ position – just under 47 million miles from Earth – is called “opposition” That’s when the sun, Earth and Mars are in a straight line with Mars rising in the east just as the sun sets in the west.   

“Opposition is the same thing as a full moon,” said Pensacola State College astronomer Wayne Wooten. But, because of Earth’s slightly elliptical orbit, Earth is still getting even a little closer to Mars.

“In any event, Mars is unusually close – about 18 arc seconds across – the closest, biggest and brightest it’s been in the current decade,” said Wooten. “It will get a little bit better in 2018, but that’s not reason not to enjoy it this time around.”

Because of Earth’s slightly elliptical orbit, we’re still getting even a little closer to Mars. But Mother Nature is throwing a few curveballs. Other planets’ gravitational pulls slightly change Earth orbit. Jupiter has an impact on Mars’ orbit. Add to that the fact that the orbits of Mars and Earth are not exactly on the same plane.

Mars will remain especially bright in the night sky until June 3. Finding it isn’t that big of a chore; they don’t call it the Red Planet for nothing.

“Go outside, look to the southeast by about 8:30 [Monday evening],” Wooten said. “it’s big and orange and the second-brightest thing in the evening sky. The only thing brighter is Jupiter, which is directly overhead now.” 

After the next opposition in 2018, Mars won’t be this close to Earth again until the year 2035. Wooten says if manned missions are being flown to Mars by then, it could reduce the travel time by several weeks. 

Back on Earth, Wooten is readying a summer full of sky gazing at Fort Pickens, Pensacola Beach and at PSC. The next big event is June 3rd at Fort Pickens.

“Mars will still be plenty big and bright [and] close; the moon will be out of the way; if the skies are good and clear, the Milky Way will be superb,” said Wooten. Bring along your smartphones, we’ll let you photograph Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn.”

Some of the other celestial treats coming up later this summer deal with the four phases of the moon. The Fort Pickens viewing actually was begun 40 years ago as a celebration of the nation’s bicentennial. 

More information is available by emailing PSC astronomer Wayne Wooten – wwooten@pensacolastate.edu.