Mars and Earth are getting closer even as you read this. As April opens, the distance between the two planets is lessening by approximately 300 kilometers a minute. This convergence will end on April 14 when the distance between Mars and Earth will be a mere 92 million kilometers (which is quite close in terms of astronomy and our solar system.)
This event, officially called the “opposition of Mars” by astronomers, is thus named because the Sun and Mars are on opposite ends of our sky. Astronomers report that at sunset Mars rises in the east and move “almost overhead at midnight.” It will be shining “brighter than a first magnitude star.” These oppositions occur only once “every 26 months.”
In truth, while any night this month is good for observing Mars with little more than a simple backyard telescope, the actual date of the opposition itself is April 8. This is the date that Mars and Earth as well as the Sun will be in an almost straight line. This would also be the date of their closest approach if the orbits of Mars and Earth were actually perfectly circular.
Scientists have known for many years now though that the planetary orbits of bodies such as Mars and Earth are actually elliptical. This puts off the date of Mars and Earth’s closest approach for nearly another week. Therefore April 14 has been marked as the date that Mars and Earth will be at their maximum proximity of 92 million kilometers which is equivalent to a more than 6 month flight for even NASA’s fastest spacecraft.
On this particular night Mars will be easily visible thanks in part to a full moon passing by it in the constellation Virgo thereby providing what some call an obvious astronomical “landmark” in the night sky. Surprisingly this night will also include a total lunar eclipse and the full moon of April 14 and 15 will appear almost as red as Mars itself. Stay tuned to American Live Wire for more details about the “blood red” moon.
(Image courtesy of Anthony Wesley/NASA)